About Chewing Gum Dreams

Saturday 21st January 2023

Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum Dreams. Photo: Oliver Prout
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A few days ago, I watched the National Theatre At Home streamed recording of Michaela Coel’s award-winning Chewing Gum Dreams. Performed by the writer, this semi-autobiographical monologue is all about Tracey Gordon, a 14-year-old Londoner who finds misbehaving in class more interesting than the lessons, and whose sex education comes from her mates. While there’s a lot of comic fun in this exuberant and mouthy character, who times a kiss by counting off the minutes of a Craig David song, you can’t ignore a much darker side of teen life — sexual harassment and violence against girls — which is also horribly present. Coel is mesmerizing as Tracey, but also does a great job in introducing and performing the other people in her school world, from Fat Lesha, Seraphina, Connor Jones and Aaron to teacher Miss Mott and best friend Candice. The big issues, such as the failings of the education system, playground bullying and teen sexuality sit right next to a heartbreaking picture of limited aspirations and cynicism. Class is also an issue. As is race. At one point, a door is literally closed in Tracey’s face — and this metaphor resonates through her life chances. Only a certain sense of female friendship and solidarity offer a more optimistic vision of the future. Originally begun as Coel’s final-year show at Guildhall drama school, the play was developed by the Bush and the Yard Theatre in 2012, becoming a year later the Yard’s first play to be transferred to the National, where it played in the small Shed space. With no props, no design and just an empty stage with one chair, Coel and director Nadia Fall rapidly flip the scenes from classroom to bus to street to rave to hospital. Coel’s performance is great: Tracey is unsentimental, energizing with her humour and annoying with her naivety. Both text and acting of this 50-minute show are brave and inspiring, as the character begins to grow up and understand her life better. From small beginnings, this was later made into a television series and Coel then created I May Destroy You, the 2020 BBC series which is one of the very best and most provocative accounts of sexual violence ever broadcast. Both that and Chewing Gum Dreams are brilliant. A great experience.

© Aleks Sierz

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