We Need to Talk About Bobby (Off EastEnders) at King’s Head Theatre
When 12-year-old Annie is told she needs to start auditioning for different roles as she’s not a “cute Shirley Temple type” anymore, she lands a big part in a soap, playing the damaged daughter of an abusive father. The protagonist soon finds herself trapped in a fast-paced, cruel and confusing adult world, and as she grows into a teenager – surrounded by people who both patronise her and expect her to act like a grown-up – she starts to lose her grip on reality.
Paperback Theatre’s new production We Need to Talk About Bobby (Off EastEnders) makes the familiar child-star-gone-wrong trope unique by setting it in the dark, melodramatic world of British soaps. The play raises the obvious question of what fame is actually worth when it affects the star’s ability to go about her daily routine for fear of being stalked, but it also delves into the even more sombre theme of acting in shows children aren’t even allowed to watch.
The way the scenes cut between Annie’s real life and the TV work as quickly as they would on set is clever and allows director Lucy Bird to confuse the audience, blurring fiction with reality and leaving only ominous music to tell them what’s genuine and what’s pretend. This theatrical drama is in danger of being melodramatic, but it manages to steer clear from sinking into its own darkness. Leading lady Tara Groves is nowhere near 12, but the subtle costume choices – the braces, plaits, denim dungaree dress and flowery leggings – make her appear far younger than she is and heighten the discomfort surrounding what she is asked to do on camera.
The set design – containing an old-fashioned red sofa, a British consulate crest, Japanese art in the background and a blue china lamp – is slightly reminiscent of an English pub, which works well with the EastEnders reference. Even though the mise-en-scène is fairly minimal there is no confusion when we are taken to Annie’s dressing room, to the set or to the red carpet. George Atwell Gerhard’s script is strong and – despite the dark subject matter – manages to bring a lot of humour into the hour-long performance, with highlights including: “Now it sounds like you’re apologising for spilling a drink, not killing your mum.”
There are only three actors in this show, two of whom play multiple parts, but even though characters switch in a split second (sometimes with no warning) it’s always believable and both performers succeed in embodying a number of roles flawlessly. The tension between Annie’s mother (Sophie Portway) and her father (Gerhards) is believable and they work well together. Groves starts the show a little wooden and unnaturalistic, but she vastly improves as the show goes on and portrays the young heroine’s mood swings and slow descent into mania very effectively.
We Need to Talk About Bobby (Off EastEnders) puts a modern, pitch-black and quintessentially British twist on an old story. It asks important questions – while entertaining and horrifying the viewer – and it will make you think the next time you see a child in an 18-rated movie.
We Need to Talk About Bobby (Off EastEnders) was at King’s Head Theatre from 25th March until 26th March 2018. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.