A compelling piece of immersive performance, Sleepover Gurlz left New Review critic Vanessa Giron questioning her life
I’m invited to a stranger’s house. With 10 other people I’ve never met, I’m taken to a bedroom and asked to change into someone else’s pyjamas. The room itself is bare: just a bed, some fairy lights and posters of celebrities past. This should be ringing all kinds of alarm bells. But no, this is the beginning of Sleepover Gurlz.
Performed in Fitzroy at someone’s house (I still don’t know whose!), this dark comedy follows the story of Kavi (short for Kavya – an Indian/Sanskrit name – played by Vidya Rajan) and an unnamed protagonist, who acts as the devil-on-your-shoulder-type friend (Emma Smith). Both girls have grown up together, and we see their lives through the sleepovers re-enacted in this Fitzroy bedroom. The first sleepover is at age six, the next at 16, and finally 26.
It requires audience participation, which I was sceptical about because in my experience it can be cheesy, and it’s confronting when you’re singled out. But because there’s a small audience, everyone is a participant. We’re all in this together, friends!
I was given the role of Mandy, “the most popular girl in school”. The roles have their own back stories: there’s Rebecca “who is always early to the sleepover”, the two Sarahs ,who wear the same pyjamas “because they’re both named Sarah” and Elise who “has to catch the bus because she’s unfortunate”. As a participant, you have varying degrees of influence on how the story will go.
At one point during the teenage sleepover a game of truth or dare begins, and I am to ask the unnamed friend a truth or a dare. My response, because I just couldn’t help myself, was to turn to Kavi and say “But I want to ask you a question!” And you know what? They went with it. I regretted it as soon as I said it, fearing I just messed with their energy, but was pleased to see that they went with the flow as much as the audience did. It allowed for a level playing field for everyone to take part, and eased the mood significantly.
Each part is marked by the screening of a movie, as at most sleepovers. They’re movies typical of the age you are playing – first is Frozen, followed by Titanic. They are distorted, edited to appear as horror movies. The music is out of tune, the images are fuzzy, the colours inverted. The mood becomes dark and frightening.
The videos are followed by dream sequences that give us glimpses into Kavi’s life – her relationships with men, her encounters with people as she learns about her culture being exploited and appropriated. There’s a moment with her mother who is obsessed with the idea of Kavi becoming more like Malala Yousafzai. While unpleasant, it is a nice feeling to see our character grow and learn about the world around her, and makes for a more understanding segue into each chapter, so we’re not flung into three different sleepovers without knowing what’s happened in the past 10 years. We also witness Kavi preparing for her guests, obsessing over the small details such as snacks, the posters on her walls, and making sure her house isn’t “lame” before her friends see the most private part of her life – her bedroom.
The most important sleepover of all is the last one. At this point our friend Kavi is in her mid-20s, out of uni and trying to find a job. We, her guests, have all moved on with our lives. Mandy is still popular and successful thanks to her aunt, Cate Blanchett. Rebecca is still early, taking Kavi by surprise. The Sarahs don’t know each other any more. Elise is no longer taking a bus everywhere, as she is now a wealthy young woman excelling in her career. Kavi is flustered and upset – who is she if she’s not the perfect host, pretending she has it together? She goes around hurriedly offering snacks, shaking our hands more than once, begging “please don’t go”. And you feel the desperation, the tension of trying to be the perfect friend, the perfect person. As a guest, you kind of just want to leave at this point.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses their sense of self.
Kavi finally has had enough. She crawls under her bed sheets, the devil-on-her-shoulder exasperated by the toll of this act of hosting. The sleepovers are finished, and you feel relieved! You too no longer have to act like you’re perfect, or early, or the same person as someone sitting next to you. It’s a relief to stop pretending. You don’t realise that the purpose of you being at this sleepover as a guest, rather than as an observer, is to feel what Kavi is feeling, until it finally happens.
The final movie is of Kavi as a child, before the sleepovers started. We see her blowing out her birthday candles, dancing in the garden. It left me wondering, when I was a child, who did I think I would become? Is this it?
Lying throughout the performance has an element of trauma. I sat there in this bedroom, still in the mind of Mandy, thinking “I don’t want to be this person”. And neither does Kavi.
What begins as a fun get together with friends ends with an urgent desire to stop faking it. And seeing Kavi, bundled under her covers, defeated, is upsetting enough to make you reconsider the choices that have lead you here.
Sleepover Gurlz was compelling because it was so unexpected, from start to finish. I was always on the edge of my seat – I didn’t even know where the play was until after I got my ticket! But that’s just true of our lives.
I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where I’m going to end up, I don’t know if me now is what past me would’ve wanted, and I don’t know if future me is what me now is yearning for. I hope I am, and I hope the same for Kavi.
The New Review program is a collaboration between Witness and Footscray Community Arts Centre West Writers that nurtures and mentors new critical voices. It is part of Malthouse Theatre’s Living Now resident writers program, funded through the MPA Collaborations program, and has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.
Sleepover Gurlz, created and performed by Vidya Rajan and Emma Smith. Melbourne Fringe at an undisclosed location. Closed.