As someone who marks 3 October every year and still gets a thrill from wearing pink on a Wednesday, how could I resist Jocelyn Bioh’s play School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, which has its UK premiere this week at the Lyric, Hammersmith. Based loosely on the 2004 film written by Tina Fey, it features a group of Ghanaian school girls in the 1980s meeting a new, pale-skinned transfer-student, who’s lived in the US for most of her life but has a Ghanaian father. The girls are excited about upcoming selections for the Miss Ghana beauty pageant, but this new girl throws the Queen Bee’s plans out of the window. What ensues is funny, raw, heart-breaking and beautiful.
The Lyric have embraced the arrival of this play, with Ghanaian lunch trays on offer if you’re peckish before the show, and music transporting you from Hammersmith to West Africa. Once in the auditorium (a toasty venue during the first heatwave of the summer), the lights blast out and music blares to announce the start of the show, instantly transporting us to a girl’s boarding school in Ghana.
What really stands out in this production is the joy and energy of the girls, and it’s a pleasure to watch their stories fly by in a whirlwind of laughter. The audience are a lively bunch at this performance but given the context of the play, it really feels like we’re all there with the girls, no matter our age, race, or gender. We’re all groaning at the Queen Bee fighting it out, sympathising with the victims of the cruel bullying, and roaring with laughter at the wonderful comedic timing that peppers the entire performance.
The characters are lovable within minutes of them dancing onto stage. Bola Akeju as Mercy and Francesca Amewudah-Rivers as Gifty are particularly fun to watch, a hilarious double act filled with comedic talent. Take your eyes off them for a second, and you’ve probably missed a perfectly timed eyeroll or comical expression. Jadesola Odunjo plays Nana, the biggest victim of Paulina’s Queen Bee cruelties, winning the audience over instantly with her naivety and a love of snacks that regularly lands her in detention.
Tara Tijani’s performance as the original Queen Bee, Paulina, is juicy. It has delicious touches of Regina George, but her obsessions with weight, looks and position are hard to watch. Add in the tragic desire to lighten her beautiful skin and you can’t help but sympathise with this cruel bully. Spoiler alert, there’s no bus crash and spinal injury, but she gets her comeuppance in a moment that will break your heart.
Paul Wills’ set is beautiful and simple, capturing the tones and atmosphere of the school perfectly, whilst Matt Haskins’ lighting choices are the cherry on the cake of a flawless stage. Set changes are accompanied by infectious dancing from the girls and their teacher, with Monique Touko’s direction a masterclass in capturing the energy and vibrancy of a school, whilst acknowledging the need for an audience to hear what is going on.
This play doesn’t shy away from issues of race, cultural and gender inequality, and its jovial nature only makes these moments even harder to watch. The evening culminates with the girls watching the final of the beauty pageant on the TV, and without giving away the end, it leaves you temporarily winded. But once the lights come back on, the theatre roars to life with love for this beautiful production and its loveable cast.
Written by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Monique Touko
Produced by Lyric Hammersmith in association with Mark Gordon Pictures and Francesca Moody Productions
School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play is at the Lyric Hammersmith until Saturday 15 July. Further information and bookings can be found here.