Aridhi Anderson is a theatremaker, performer and reviewer based in Melbourne. Check out her work at aridhianderson.com.
A dark, confronting theatre show about the patriarchy
Just a Boy, Standing in Front of a Girl is a play by Jane Miller produced by 15 Minutes From Anywhere. The title evokes associations with the rom-com genre, you imagine it might be a tip of the hat to the 1999 movie Notting Hill, where Julia Roberts delivers a similar line to Hugh Grant - "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her". Variations and parodies of that line have since then been used in a number of other creative works. It's a very recognizable reference. This play, however, is not a romantic comedy, and the title does not prepare you for the show.
The evening begins with a confronting experience. Just before the start of the show, with hardly any notice, the audience is segregated by gender: women are asked to enter and are seated first, men and gender non-binary audience members second. The women are seated on one side of the stage, men and gender non-binary audience members on the other. You begin to wonder whether this show has immersive elements, whether the audience will be called upon to participate. You nervously take your seat (by yourself, if you've been separated from the people you came with) and wait for the show to begin.
The show begins with a fairly innocuous scene. There is a schoolgirl, the sophisticated female protagonist, who appears to be trying to get some schoolwork done when she is approached by a dorky schoolboy with playing cards. He's a magic enthusiast and wants to show her some tricks. His tricks don't work, though, and he looks so disappointed about it that she lies to him and tells him they did work. He is eager to believe her and goes away happy. This is the first and last sweet moment in this show. The following 80 minutes are a harrowing compilation of dark content, ranging from bullying and emotional abuse of young people by parents and authority figures to sexual harassment, power play, and murder, including the murder of children. The event website does not provide trigger warnings.
The characters and all their interactions are heavily caricatured and are resolutely negative. There is some initial sympathy towards the female protagonist who appears at first to be a victim of her circumstances, but once the murders begin, that also dissipates. While there is a definite sense of purpose in all this darkness and negativity, perhaps a desire to convey the evils of the patriarchy, the picture it paints is incredibly bleak - there are literally no good people, or even good actions, in this world. The progression of events is as unrealistic as it is unrelentingly dark. The sophisticated female protagonist is forced into a relationship with the dorky magician, who only wants to use her. She is constantly put down and forced to prove herself to everyone, she is disowned by her family and taken advantage of by her partner, she is sexually harassed by outsiders, she is abandoned and even challenged for custody of her own children. In the final half hour of the play, she is also placed in confronting situations with characters that I assume are either lawyers or mental health professionals.
The language of the play is fairly direct, with little concealed in subtext, storyline or implied action (apart from the scenes involving children, thankfully. There are no children physically depicted in this play). While this makes most of the play and storyline easy to follow, it also makes triggers difficult to avoid. The caricatured depictions of the world sometimes tend to make the dark content appear either flippant or sometimes even inaccurately portrayed (such as depictions of how people climb up the corporate ladder), and the complete lack of respite or opportunities for healing make the show a very uncomfortable experience overall.
One thing the show does relatively well, however, is its use of innovative staging. It uses traverse staging, which means the stage is a long and narrow corridor between audience members seated on both sides, the two sides of the audience facing each other. It's a style of stage layout that is sometimes used to intentionally deliver a different experience to the audience members depending on which side you're seated. (This could have been an explanation for why audience members were segregated by gender, but as the show unfolded it became clear that it was not: or if it was, it was ineffective in that regard.) The stage layout does capture the imagination, though, and is used skillfully for entries and exits, scene changes, and so forth. Towards the end, in particular, there is a segment where the glossy surface of the stage reflects a golden glow onto the back wall of the theatre, which produces a visual effect that is quite beautiful. However, this is not enough to redeem the overall experience.
I understand the importance of experimentation in any art form and respect that all sorts of content can and should be reflected in art. I also appreciate that the actors in this play have played their parts with conviction and all the technical work that went into the play was rock solid. However, I couldn't help feeling that this show lacked respect towards its audience. Most people who choose to go out to watch a show with a friend or a date (or whoever) don't expect to be separated from them all evening without reason, and they certainly don't expect to be hit with exceedingly dark content without any trigger warnings and without any respite.
This show is best suited to thick-skinned audience members who aren't looking for light entertainment and don't mind 80 minutes of confronting content about the patriarchy.