BWW Reviews: MY GIRL 2, The Old Red Lion Theatre, June 29 2014
In this cramped upstairs North London theatre, a cramped upstairs East London flat is re-created in which we find Sam and Anita getting by, but not much more. He's a social worker dealing with the fallout of Coalition Britain's headlong race to "clear up the mess" (no matter how messy it gets) and she's nine months pregnant with a second child while their first is still teething - a combination spared most parents! But Sam is concealing a mountain of debt from his wife and she is looking for an escape from the sink estate that has trapped her.
Barrie Keeffe has updated his 1989 play My Girl for 2014 and another Conservative government. Well, he has updated the references, as the social problems persist 25 years on - though the curious absence of the internet and effective mobile phones and the financial ignorance of an intelligent woman who will be in receipt of both Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit does rather stretch belief. That said, "message" plays stand or fall on the quality of their drama and My Girl 2 (continuing at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 12 July) sits comfortably in the long tradition that stretches from the kitchen sink realism of the late 1950s through to EastEnders misery fests today.
Intimate two-handers like this make heavy demands on their actors. Emily Plumtree's Anita aches with the desire for something better - particularly, a place in the country (though she also longs for a return to the gigs and nights out carefree London Life too). She doesn't want another man, but she wants her man to want her, something Alexander Neal's Sam is finding harder to do, as his head is turned by a client with whom he connect more easily than with his wife.
Though both actors give sensitive, strong performances, I'm not sure that I believe in them - and that's a problem in a contemporary realistic play. The episodic structure leads to some significant personality shifts, despite little time passing, and when the dialogue is straining for emotional power (and delivered at full volume in a very small space), it does not quite ring true (unless there are other hints of behind closed doors, consensual, suburban sado-masochism elsewhere that I missed). Perhaps, depsite love being a most mysterious thing, it's just too difficult to believe that Anita ever fell for Sam, never mind that she is still very much in love with him.
Whilst my taste would have been for some more of the splendid Blues Brothers inspired music and a little more comedy to leaven the traumatic fare, others will appreciate the dilemmas faced by an ordinary couple trapped in a pincer-movement between a culture of debt and the responsibilities of parenthood. As everyone says at the time and you just can't believe - they do grow up quick though!