“Do you think – deep down – that all men secretly hate women?”
Elinor Cook was the 2013 winner of the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright and so it is a natural fit that her play The Girl’s Guide to Saving the World should premiere at HighTide this year. Billed as “a frank and funny new play about friendship, feminism and what it means to be successful”, it’s a tale of nearly-30-something angst as Jane, Bella and Toby deal with the difficulties of accepting adulthood and what that means for their lives.
For Bella, it is calming down her chaotic sex life, just a little, and figuring out how to become the writer she wants to be rather than an in-house retail magazine scribe; for Jane and Toby, it is first recognising and then reconciling the huge differences in what they want from their partnership; and Jane’s relationship with longstanding best friend Bella is also under threat as their interests diverge even as they work together to tackle cultural representations of women via the medium of a blog.
It is undoubtedly well-intentioned but I have to say I found it a difficult play to like. Amelia Sears’ production has an inventive multipart design by Jamie Vartan, but one which ends up overly fussy as its component pieces are endlessly reconfigured for the next scene and the next, robbing the show of sorely needed pace. And for all of its impassioned feeling, I found it hard to discern what message Cook wanted us to take away from it.
Jane’s emergence into self-realisation may have a feminist bent but they also end up supremely selfish, her main problem seeming to be her inability to communicate effectively with people. Too much feels dramatically contrived rather than emotionally honest and so it is often hard to stay with her on her journey. Jade Williams imbues her with a brash brittleness which feels appropriate but never feeling too real, neither of her key relationships really being sufficiently explored.
Georgina Strawson’s Bella is intriguingly drawn but somewhat underwritten as she often skirts around the edge of the play (and would she really have treated her best friend’s bloke that way) as the focus stays with Jane and Toby, Ben Lambert’s new man longing for an idealised version of parenthood but also given a darker underside that doesn’t convince (and would he really have made such a key decision without Jane noticing?).
I did like the way Lambert played all three men of the piece though – the dutiful lover, the sexy stranger, the rapey creep – with its suggestion that elements of all three are in all men. Strangely enough, it is the portrayal of its women characters that then suffer by comparison, Jane in particular, lacking the same nuanced complexity and sticking with an almost pugnacious infallibility that makes it hard to really engage with emotionally.