Just a few short steps away from the entrance to the New Wimbledon Theatre is the Studio. As you’d expect it’s significantly smaller, understated and a more intimate performance space than the main theatre in all its Edwardian splendour. Tonight, while Dolly Parton’s glitzy 9 to 5 filled the ornate auditorium next door, we were treated to a more down to earth, intriguing play from Phoebe Eclair-Powell: Epic Love and Pop Songs.
The play tells the story of two school friends in year 11, who seem to be forced together more by necessity than genuine friendship. Doll (Georgie Halford) finds herself pregnant at 16 and ostracised by all her peers, while Ted (Roel Fox) is the only one who stays by her side. What follows over the next 75 minutes is a tender look at teenage friendship and a hilarious exploration of teenage angst. It also has a couple of shocking revelations that jar against the innocent teenage exploits of Doll and Ted. Day-to-day teenage drama plays out against trauma and tragedy, for both characters.
Doll and Ted speak to the audience directly for much of the play: Doll is telling her story, with Ted for the most part acting out key characters in Doll’s life. But when it comes time for Ted to tell his story, it is a heart-breaking monologue. Both Halford and Fox play their roles with warmth and honesty, and it’s hard to imagine that they will step off stage into their own personas and leave these loveable characters behind.
Pop songs are performed sporadically throughout; an amusing addition at first that becomes an emotional driver towards the end of the play. I would challenge anyone to find such a bizarrely entertaining version of Rik James’s ‘Superfreak’ or to reach the high notes of Katy Perry’s ‘Firework’ as Fox does – with only a little straining. The humour of the pop songs continues, yet when we come to their version of Mika’s iconic ‘Grace Kelly’ it is tinged with sadness by the narrative that it coincides with. The final performance is still at its heart slightly silly, but with real emotion that results in not even a giggle in the packed audience. Fox deserves a special round of applause for his instrumental performances throughout the show, whether that be on a ukulele, piano or whatever that last instrument was.
There is a mental health issue at the play’s core: to reveal more would be to give away a spoiler. It is a complicated issue that isn’t explored in much detail, but perhaps this is the point. Mental health is often left misunderstood or ignored and in the circumstances in which our characters find themselves it would be hard for them to deal with head on. But it did leave me with questions and further exploration would have been interesting to see.
The play refuses to rely on clichés, and I found the plot surprising at many times. It’s got a real heart, and although there were a small number of fluffs, the cast were some of the most loveable characters I’ve ever encountered in a production. As the lights dim to Doll’s final spotlight monologue, Eclair-Powell manages to weave her characters into our hearts and leave us wanting more.
Written by: Phoebe Eclair-Powell
Directed by: Samantha Robinson
Produced by: Camille Wilhelm
Epic Love and Pop Songs plays at The Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre until 23 October. Further information and booking via the below link.