Girls & Boys

MTC-GIRLS-&-BOYS-Nikki-Shiels-photo-Jeff-BusbyThe story of “but he was a good man” persists in media, dinner conversations and family stories. British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Girls & Boys includes a good man; a man so good that an amazing woman married him after the cutest of cute meets. They had amazing sex, successful careers, two children – a girl and a boy – and one of those lives that many people would look at and envy.

Nikki Shiels is extraordinary as the woman alone on the stage telling us her story in this MTC production.

Her unnamed character is honest and her descriptions of her day-to-day life with her children are often so mundane that there’s no doubting her reliability as a narrator. The games she plays with them or her frustration with the likes of a toddler not eating are life; she’s not lying.

She’s delightfully crude and has no shame in telling us about here early relationships, “slaggy” times and how she met the man she knew she had to be with. Their story is funny and sexy, and their love feels natural.

Her stories about her determination to work in the documentary film world are also hilarious and it’s expected that they are exaggerated for effect. Never let the actual truth get in the way of a better story.

And never let the story get in the way of the truth.

The long early storytelling gives a sense of comfort that this is a comedy that’s going to have an unfortunate ending, but that it will be the expected end of an intense relationship.

Shiels is natural without being so chummy that you want to be her friend. Friends are missing from her world, which feels ok until you re-think everything she said.

By now, most people seeing Girls & Boys, written in 2018 and recently performed in Adelaide, know that it’s not a safe or easy work to experience. It’s not. At all.

I’m not going to tell the story, but it is easy to read up about if anyone does not feel safe to watch a story about anyone still shockingly described as a “good man”.

As most reviews do at this point, I recommend stop reading if you don’t want to know too much. There are no major spoilers, but this is not a play for everyone to experience.

I chose to see it without knowing the story. I don’t regret it and I don’t think knowing the ending would have made it any less harrowing or have prepared me for some of the emotional buttons that I didn’t expect it to hit.

It’s a story of violence that happens far too often. It’s one that should never happen again. But it will. We call it “unspeakable violence”. But we have to speak about it.

It’s told by a woman who is doing everything she can to tell her story. She knows when and why she’s not telling the complete truth ­­- but the story about him is always the truth.

She knows when she’s trying to change her memories. She knows enough about PTSD to know why she behaves in the ways she does. She knows why she has to explain what sounds like lists of facts and why she makes jokes. Or if she doesn’t, the playwright, director (Kate Champion) and actor know why.

It’s a remarkable depiction of how extreme trauma changes people so much that even if they seem like they always have been – “She’s coping so well”, “She’s like her old self” –, they know that even their old self is a memory that they can’t trust.

It’s not easy to watch but seeing a story like this on a stage is so different from learning about it in the media, chatting about it with a stranger on a train, or justifying it because you knew them, or knew someone who knew them, and you know they would never do that without reasonable cause.

It’s raw and challenging and every theatrical and story-telling device used to evoke emotion is used because the emotion is real.

Some theatre is made because stories have to be told. The Melbourne Fringe festival has just finished and there was so much new work about trauma. I hope this is because we are getting better at understanding trauma, while being scared that it is because there are so many of us who need to talk about trauma.

Girls & Boys is ultimately gut-wrenching, but it is a story that can be experienced more safely in a theatre because it is told with understanding and care and because there is a community all around to share the impact and to be there to listen and believe you if it reflects your story.

Girls & Boys
Fairfax Studio – Arts Centre Melbourne, 100 St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Performance: Thursday 27 October 2022
Season continues to 26 November 2022
Information and Bookings:

Image: Nikki Shiels stars in Girls & Boys – photo by Jeff Busby

Review: Anne-Marie Peard