Pic: Brett Boardman

Reviews, Stage

Fangirls review (Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney)

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That piercing shrill you’ve heard wafting from Surry Hills this week? That would be the singular sound of teenage girls responding to their favourite boy band.

You might have heard echoes of the sound as this show barrelled down the Pacific Highway, fresh from a sellout Queensland Theatre Company run that was met with similar exclamation by critics.

At Belvoir’s Upstairs Theatre, at least on opening night, the sound competes with a raucous audience response of screeching laughter and wild ovation. The old Belvoir bleachers have arguably never rocked this hard.

What Yve Blake — this new Aussie musical’s composer, lyricist, book writer and star, if you don’t mind — has intravenously tapped with Fangirls is not just nostalgia for heady teenage times but something more congenital. It’s about the whole body metamorphosis of music and the debilitating sickness of first love, as universal as eating and breathing.

In her songs and her performance, alongside a fine all-singing, all-dancing ensemble, Blake energised the audience like few works I’ve seen. To her very great credit.

And yet Fangirls felt distant to me. And not just, I contend, because of your correspondent’s gender, or the age gap (there’s a helpful glossary of teen-talk in the program, thanks very much).

Fangirls is all in the title. Three school chums live for the music of One Direction — sorry, “True Connection” — and especially for its dimpled, floppy haired lead Harry (well cast reality show graduate Aydan). When Harry announces the band are touring to Sydney, Edna (Blake), Jules (Chika Ikogwe) and Brianna (Kimberley Hodgson) beg, borrow and steal to get tickets. But as their fandom goes too far the farce kicks into gear.

The three women out front are terrific. Blake has solid vocal chops and is wonderfully possessed by the hormone monster. Ikogwe follows her grounded turn in Belvoir’s The Wolves with a funny and fierce performance here. Madon is a coil of nervous energy. Music theatre pro Sharon Millerchip is handed somewhat of a trope (hard-working single mum) but she wrings pathos from it, then hides under a beanie to believably play various teenagers. James Majoos, making his professional debut, successfully makes his camp cyber friend real.

Blake, who has spent much of the last few years on stages and comedy rooms overseas, is a talent that deserves an enthusiastic homecoming. She’s written a double album here of perfectly derivative pop music with largely banal lyrics — which is meant as nothing but a compliment. There are melodic hooks aplenty, and vocal scoops that roll back the eyes.

Alice Chance has done a sterling job arranging the vocals as music director (though the sound mix needs a tweak or two). The choreography is perfect parody, too, as designed by Leonard Mickelo, fenced in smartly by digital screens borrowed from any pop tour or TV studio performance (set, spot-on fashions and much of the video content by designer David Fleischer). 

Of all her multi-threats, it’s Blake’s playwriting that I think is the weakest here. While she captures teen angst smartly with her tunes — mostly in act two: body anxiety in Disgusting, powerlessness in Silly Little Girl — the breakneck book puts entertainment before character development and cultural critique. And its deliberate universality (insert city here, like a drugged-out touring frontman) robs it of specificity.

It’s too long, certainly; I don’t know why every music theatre composer thinks they need to write to a two-act, two-and-a-half-hour template. I can imagine a tighter, more powerful show. I wish director Paige Rattray provided a little more focus.

When we read teenagers are anxiety-ridden by climate change, obsession over a boy band feels rather quaint. Which is not to say celebrity worship is on the wane, or that teen music crushes aren’t as intoxicating as presented here, but I’m not sure teens are as single-minded. Maybe I’m wrong. I couldn’t help but think of the British TV hit Derry Girls, which served up a similar touring band crush narrative with funnier, more authentic results.

Blake, rudely talented in every way, has a career that will soar higher and for longer than any boy band. But after serving up a fresh helping of the hilarious and heartbreaking Aussie musical Barbara & The Camp Dogs earlier this year, Belvoir’s latest local effort seems to me to be for fangirls only.

Fangirls plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until November 10.

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