A heartbreaking work of youthful cruelty.
Sometimes the cruelest people in society, are those closest to you, because they know exactly where it hurts most. And in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s production of Evan Placey’s Girls Like That, we learn that it is often the youth who are the worst perpetrators of all – unaware of just how much pain their words can inflict.
Directed by Daniel Jenkins and performed by the latest graduating batch of The Young Company, Girls Like That follows a select group of schoolgirls who grew up in an elite, all-girls institution, swearing friendship forever. But as they transition into a co-ed high school, invisible cracks in their friendship are exposed, when Scarlett’s nudes go viral, and the supposed bonds they had are quickly frayed as they gang up to destroy her life.
Girls Like That is a fiercely relevant play for today’s youth, concentrating on the ease of cyberbullying, and how difficult it is to curb. Adults are almost entirely absent from the script, with most of the dialogue coming from the other girls making Scarlett’s life a living hell. While we almost never hear Scarlett’s voice, the other girls’ commentary is all we need to imagine how much suffering they cause her, from egging her on to fight a supposed rival in love, to sending the cursed photos to a date completely clueless about Scarlett’s secret shame.
Weaving in and out of the past and present, there are times it seems that Placey’s writing tries to cover too much ground. There are times these feel hauntingly prescient, such as moments where the girls recall heading to the swimming pool together as children, and already passing snide remarks on Scarlett’s body, half out of spite, half almost jealous of her. At other times, recurring scenes where various women from a hippie all about ‘free love’ to an Olivia Newton-John worshipping intern, are fun, but ultimately, feel extraneous and distract from the main storyline.
Still, Girls Like That works for the most part, heartwrenching in its realism when it hits hardest. At one point, when Scarlett has gone missing, and presumed dead, the students are gathered for a memorial at school, and a single line rings out, stating how the counsellors had no idea what to do, harkening back to how helpless adults can be when it comes to school deaths. The irony to it all is how the girls then reveal themselves to lack any empathy at all, posting faux words of grief when they were the ones bullying Scarlett all along. Almost as if to emphasise these hidden threads of violence, Tai Zi Feng’s set comprises school tables dangling from the ceiling, perhaps to suggest that outside of their prim and proper selves, these girls are chaotic individuals bent on raising hell.
As an ensemble, Megan Ann Pang, Diana Basil Heng, Kelly Choo, Jasmine Acquaah-Harisson, Shyann Ong, Melody Tay Xi Ching and Jacqueline Monteiro are believable as school girls onstage, each one embodying certain stereotypes, from the ditz to the insecure. Together, they share a confident onstage chemistry, most prominently seen in their group choreography numbers, as they perform to female pop numbers such as Beyonce’s ‘Run The World’ (Girls) and Taylor Swift’s ‘Better Than Revenge’. One questions however, the decision to force the cast into attempting British accents, with many of them dropping it at some point, while there are times they could have afforded a bit more time to let a particularly dramatic line sink in, rather than almost immediately cutting it off with a sound/light cue.
While the cast could do with firmer direction that allows the performance to emphasise and land the story’s devastating emotion, Girls Like That does still feel like a good play for young actors. Not only does it address the effects of the ever-present issue of cyberbullying; it also touches on gender inequality, and most of all, is quietly tragic in how it suggests that the little guidance youth receive inadvertently leads them to becoming terrible adults. In one of the final scenes, as the girls graduate, each one expresses a sense of loss, knowing that nothing they’ve done as a child or any of the friendships they’ve made actually matter anymore, doomed to drift apart despite their years together. Perhaps this is the lesson that we need to teach our future generations – that mistakes will be made in their youth, but it is up to them to decide if they will define their future, or change for the better.
Girls Like That played from 16th to 19th December 2021 at KC Arts Centre.