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Chewing Gum Dreams (Manchester)

Chewing Gum Dreams at the Royal Exchange is a moving and very entertaining play, says Dave Cunningham.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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Chewing Gum Dreams
© Royal Exchange Theatre

Teenager Tracey Gordon (sole performer Michaela Coel who also wrote the play) finds school lessons incomprehensible.

Her sex education was largely completed by schoolyard gossip, leading to some very strange conversations with the chemist. She knows enough to know she is nothing.

Such a summary does not do the play justice, for although it is an unflinching look at a broken society, it is also very funny and allows a glimmer of hope. Chewing Gum Dreams is as much a study of Tracey's environment as it is of the character.

This is a culture in which young women accept physical violence from brutal men as if it is deserved and idolise the thugs who commit the abuse.

Coel's script and performance bravely does not try to make Tracey an appealing character; she is realistically portrayed as equal parts spirited and bloody irritating. Tracey is a motormouth, obsessed with trivia and race and so desperate to appease her peer group that she will easily slide into bullying.

Yet the subtle development of the play allows Tracey to get a glimpse of how others see her, so that by its conclusion Tracey has the beginning of a conscience and a growing awareness that what she has accepted all her life could, and should, be challenged.

The performance is excellent; while Coel has a ball showing off Tracey's zest for life it is the quieter moments – the realisation of how she has offended a friend or Tracey's embarrassment at learning that she is not considered good enough for her boyfriend – that really impress. Coel enacts a whole range of larger than life characters, including one with an unmentionable party trick.

Without the benefit of props, and relying just on sound and lighting, director Che Walker shifts the scenes seamlessly from schoolroom to bus to rave and hospital. The audience enters to find Tracey already present and in full flow, with her friends nicely letting us know that we are joining her while her life is developing and that it will continue after we have left.

Chewing Gum Dreams is very ambitious; it gives a realistically bleak depiction of inner city life but is not in itself depressing. On the contrary - the quality of the writing and the high standard of the humour along with the hope that change is possible makes for a moving and very entertaining play.

- Dave Cunningham