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Review: Scenes with Girls (Royal Court)

Miriam Battye's new play opens in west London

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Tanya Reynolds and Rebekah Murrell in Scenes with Girls
© Helen Murray

Tanya Reynolds must feel she is talking about sex a lot these days. Just like Sex Education, in which she has made her name on TV, Scenes with Girls is pretty frank about the subject. But Miriam Battye's sparkling new play is pretty direct about a lot of things. Its theme, essentially, is female friendship and just how difficult it is for women, growing up and carving their space and lives in the world, to change a narrative that determines that their happy ever afters are to be found with men and the conventional trajectory of home and family.

In 22 sharp, fresh, thrilling scenes we follow Tosh (Reynolds) and Lou (Rebekah Murrell), 24 year-old flatmates, as they try to break free of those expectations. They are doing so in slightly different ways; both have forsworn love and romance, but Tosh has fallen into an incel nihilism while Lou is excitedly attempting to have a rich sensual existence, free of commitment, but full of physical encounters. Neither is finding their route particularly easy. The action is punctuated by what Battye calls "hooptedoodles" – short snapshots of the girls' lives that stand outside the narrative. In one of these, Lou collapses as if wounded and is comforted by Tosh. "Maybe I should just date girls.. but I already feel such a f**king responsibility to my gender the idea of dating one of my own…I mean…I'd just forgive them for everything," she says.

Their experiment in self-sufficient, loving friendship is further disrupted by the return of Fran (Letty Thomas), a former flatmate who is now about to get married. "She is sort of the human equivalent of lasagne isn't she?" says Lou, unkindly, faced with Fran's uncomplicated brightness and traditional beliefs.

Performed in a stylised blue swimming pool-like depression, with steps rising from the sides (design by Naomi Dawson) and directed with nuance and sensitivity by Lucy Morrison, there are two things that mark Scenes with Girls out as special. The first is its language; this is a play with articulate, language-obsessed heroines, who are always looking up words on their computers to check they are using them correctly. Its own dialogue is engineered with the same precision, both naturalistic and highly refined, each word landing exactly where it should.

The second is the performances, all of which are perfectly calibrated to reflect the characters portrayed. Reynolds brings wonderful timing to Tosh, but also constantly suggests the darkness lurking behind her sarcasm, the need hiding in her apparent independence. Murrell is equally convincing as Lou, full of bright swagger but with sorrow always beneath the surface, while Thomas makes the gentle Fran a picture of slightly frumpy incomprehension, pierced by shafts of understanding and pain.

It has the odd dip, but I've given it four stars because last year, around this time and at this venue, I decided to give Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner three, on the grounds that better new writing might come along. It didn't and I regretted it all year. Like that play, this feels like a breath of bracing air, a real insight into the lives of the girls it depicts. It's terrific.