Shewolves, Southwark Playhouse
Friday 23rd June 2023
Climate-change activist Greta Thunberg is great at doing two things: irritating complacent adults and inspiring idealistic teens. In Sarah Middleton’s debut comedy, Shewolves, which was first staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and now comes to the studio space of the Southwark Playhouse, the Swedish youngster has galvanized 14-year-old Lou into staging a regular school strike in her home town of Derby. Holding a placard in Swedish, she attracts the attention of Priya, a very different kind of teen.
For whereas Lou is middle class, good at school subjects and interested in saving the planet, Priya is from a working-class Asian background and is more interested in Love Island than in melting ice caps. So while Lou is trying to make a difference as an activist, Priya is looking to skip off school. But she also has problems at home and, when Lou tells her that her mother is away, Priya asks if she can stay on a sleepover. The next morning a letter from school arrives for Lou, telling her that she has been suspended for protesting. Both teens agree to run away.
After Lou and Priya pack their supplies of baked beans and pop tarts, along with ski suits and sleeping bags, they head off into the Peak District. Here the contrasts and similarities of their characters come into sharp focus. While Lou has ambitions to learn more about 3-D printers and go to university, Priya sees her own destiny as living off benefits. Both share a complicated relationship with their mothers: Lou’s mum is ambitious and controlling whereas Priya’s now has another man, a creep the teen calls a “racist”. Both girls have absent fathers; both feel that their voices are not being heard.
There is a great deal of sweet humour in Middleton’s fairy tale account of these northern teen runaways, with Lou copying her idol Thunberg’s pigtails, anorak and United Nations denunciations, as well as her fierce scowl. The theme of climate change activism is soon dropped as the focus turns to the relationship between the two girls. They form a she wolf pack, help each other, argue, help each other, argue again more strongly, and finally unite in using digital media to make themselves heard. Although things are wrapped up rather too neatly by the end of this slender 60-minute show, you feel that the youthful idealism has its own integrity.
Shewolves is a cute coming-of-age story that suggests deeper issues of parental neglect, with implications of abuse, as well as showing off the energy and passionate feelings that young teens experience. Middleton’s dialogues — complete with fart jokes and sharp insights into the behaviour of adults — are recognizably genuine and her characters both complex and vividly drawn. The short format of Edinburgh shows, however, does mean that there is not enough room to explore any of the issues deeply and the ending feels a little bit too rushed. Still, as a portrait of young idealism and zest for life this two-hander is both fun and warmhearted.
Part of a Midlands-based project that centers young women, Hannah Stone’s production, using designer Charlotte Henery’s versatile set, is fast-paced and often very funny. Gurjot Dhaliwal’s Priya has an appealing bad mouth and gaucheness that contrasts well with Harriet Waters’s more brainy and repressed Lou. Together on stage they have a convincing dynamic, and the moments when the howl in unison as a celebration of their new-found power are wonderful, aided by Eleanor Isherwood’s pounding sounds. This is a lovely piece of youth theatre.
This review first appeared on The Theatre Times