An irresistible musical with a dark heart, Fangirls summons the chaos of adolescence, says Robert Reid
Fangirls – a multi-award-winning explosion of youthful exuberance in musical theatre form from Belvoir Theatre – is already a resounding hit. It’s a work about the wild teenage years of world-shaking crushes and desperate-all-or-nothing friendships: the years when we are lost in a swirling mass of hormones and cortical development, when we’re only just beginning to really feel empathy for others and desperately crave attention and approval. It reminds me, not so much of how old I am, but of how old I sometimes feel.
In celebrating a time when we were young enough to think the world would end if we didn’t see a concert and how completely it honours the emotional roller coaster of adolescence, this show has distinct appeal across age groups. It’s an obvious choice for a family-friendly trip to the theatre – mums and dads sit with excitable children and teens throughout the massive space in the Ridley Centre at the Adelaide Showgrounds.
Fangirls tells the story of Edna – Eddie as everybody calls her – who is played Karis Oka, and originally performed by writer Yve Blake herself in the 2019 tour. She’s a 14-year-old school girl with something more than a simple crush on an internationally famous boyband singer, Harry. With his shaggy mop of hair, doe-eyed good looks and band called True Connection, he’s a thinly veiled cypher for Harry Styles (The Voice’s Aydan Calafiore). All Eddie’s friends are obsessed with Harry and the band: but for Eddie it’s something deeper, maybe something darker. She writes fanfic online about her fantasies of escaping with him. Where they’re escaping to is never really considered in these kinds of stories: the point of these fantasies is just to find an undefined placed that represents happily ever after.
When True Connection announce surprise tour dates in Australia, Edna and her two best friends at the school, Jules (Chika Ikogwe) and Brianna (Shubshri Kandiah) simply have to get tickets. Eddie, you see, is not only utterly convinced that she and Harry are destined to meet and fall in love and be together forever, but also that she sees something in him that no one else sees.
She sees a secret depression he’s hiding behind those bewitching eyes, catching it in frozen moments on paused concert footage. Eddie’s convinced that, despite having never met him, she knows him intimately ,because they share the same private school scholarship background. She, like every other fangirl and boy in the story, is convinced that, in the paraphrased words of one of the stand-out songs of the musical, no one loves him like she does.
Blake describes Fangirls as an exploration of what it is to be a fangirl and why they’re so scary. From The Beatles to One Direction, the power of boy bands is driven by the cult-like devotion they inspire in their fans, or more properly, the almost religious awe with which those fans endow a handful of famous pretty boys.
Though the show is called Fangirls, the marketing material is quick to point out the patriarchal discrepancy between how the wild teenage obsessions of young women and queer boys is dismissed as crazy, irrational and scary, even though the heteronormative obsession of teenage boys for football or cars or, in my case, role-playing games and punk bands (okay, actually, Queen), is so normalised it’s not even commented upon. The production doesn’t make this point anywhere nearly as heavily as the marketing guff might make you think. Instead it’s a bright, poppy and catchy celebration of all the things that are marketed at pubescent girls and queer boys. Boyfriends, gossip, celebrity and true love.
It’s unsurprising that it reminds me of films like That Thing You Do and and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but there’s a vein of darkness that runs through Fangirls that also recalls The King of Comedy and Grant Morrison’s ’90s comic Kill Your Boyfriend.
It’s also unbearably cringe at times, especially when they’re just “being teenagers”. The all-consuming passions, the unforgivable cruelty, the overwhelming self-centredness, the tunnel vision of being a teenager, make me grind my teeth. The overstatements of everything – they’re always “literally dying” or “just can’t even” – are impossible fantasies of exaggeration. That cringe factor may be a result of how well-observed the characters are in the writing, or maybe it’s just a sign I’m a grumpy old man now.
The casual cruelty and manipulation with which they treat their parents makes me like them less, but I bet the younger members of the audience can identify. The rivalries between the three best friends as they race to become adults, to do grown-up things, take risks, push limits and test boundaries and, especially, their inability to understand consequences, are hard to watch. Yet still it wins me over.
I feel most for Eddie’s mum (Danielle Barnes), the hard-working nurse and, it seems, single mum, trying desperately to get through to her teenage daughter. She struggles to reach Eddie, trying to explain that the boys of her obsession are only proxies, products designed by the music industry to take advantage of the feelings that Eddie and her friends are incapable of understanding yet. She’s exasperated and a bit heartbroken, but the harder she tries to connect, the further Eddie pulls away from her.
Eddie demands space, she wants to be left alone, her mother doesn’t understand, doesn’t let her ever do anything or have anything. The scene where Eddie takes her frustration out on her mum at being denied a ticket to the concert is a knife in the heart. I’m not even a parent and I feel it all too well. Maybe I can see teen me reflected for a moment in Eddie. Thirty years on, it doesn’t look so pretty.
The performances are very strong, bringing a huge energy to the show. Oka as Eddie is relatable and assured and her voice soars through the score. Ikogwe and Kandiah as her two best friends make excellent foils and are distinct characters in their own right. However, it’s James Majoos as Salty Pringl, the queer friend in the online fanfic community who Eddie uses to help shape her dark plans, that stands out. A terrific voice, a disciplined control of his movement and a camp lightness that can drop into a blokey faux basso profundo for comic effect, all make his performance a delight.
The staging is simple, a subtly glittery floor and a collection of screens at the back onto which are projected glittering curtains, colourful animations and which sometimes flicker into a chorus of teenage faces, primping and preening and playing to a webcam.
The choreography does feel a little loose. Some of the cast carry it off better and with more definition than others – it’s already mid-way through a long season – but mainly there aren’t enough of them on stage to make it really work. Even with everyone present, the choreography inadvertently reveals the gaps and makes it feel like it has been created with a larger cast in mind. It would certainly benefit from more bodies on stage.
Still, Fangirls is a feel-good musical with a heart of darkness. If you’ve got teenage children, siblings, nieces or nephews, or if you’re a teenager yourself – especially if you’re one of the musical theatre kids – it’s a joyful must-see.
Fangirls, book, music and lyrics by Yve Blake, director Paige Rattray, original music director /vocal arranger Alice Chance, music producer/sound designer David Muratore, music director /vocal arranger Zara Stanton, set, video content and costume designer David Fleischer, video content design and production Justin Harrison, lighting designer Emma Valente, choreographer Leonard Mickelo, Associate Choreographer Sharon Millerchip. Performed by Aydan, Danielle Barnes, Chika Ikogwe, Shubshri Kandiah, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Karis Oka, Tomáš Kantor and Shannen Alyce Quan. A co-production with Belvoir, Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival, in association with Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP).
Touring Wollongong, Canberra and Melbourne until May. Bookings