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Girls & Boys, Royal Court, London, review: A remarkable return for Carey Mulligan

The ‘Great Gatsby’ star returns to the West End stage in Dennis Kelly’s solo show about a disintegrating marriage which is directed by ‘Posh’ and ‘Chimerica’ director Lyndsey Turner 

Paul Taylor
Friday 16 February 2018 09:15 GMT
Mulligan is superb at suggesting a woman struggling to maintain her composure
Mulligan is superb at suggesting a woman struggling to maintain her composure (Marc Brenner)

Carey Mulligan made her stage debut at the Royal Court when she was 19 playing a narcoleptic teenager in Kevin Elyot’s Forty Winks. Three years later, she was a superlative Nina to Kristin Scott Thomas’s Arkadina in a production of The Seagull at the same address. She is more renowned these days for her screen performances, but Mulligan continues to have serious theatrical chops – as we were reminded by her lovely acting in a West End revival of David Hare’s Skylight four years ago. Now she returns to the Royal Court for a project that sees her take to the stage alone in the world premiere of this solo show, scripted by Dennis Kelly (Matilda, The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas) and directed by Lyndsey Turner (Posh, Chimerica).

It’s a mouthwatering team and they do not disappoint in a piece that takes us on an extraordinary journey from clubby laughter to the bleak arctic wastes that lie on the other side of terrible tragedy. The show is jolly, then it punches you in the gut and it sends out a feminist message of shocking power. Mulligan’s performance retains a moving openness through all these difficult changes of tone. At the start, she has the timing, the downmarket accent, and the naughty twinkle of a standup comic as she regales us with her stories. She met her husband in the queue to board an easyJet flight where instant dislike for the man turned to love when he wittily saw off two beautiful, pushy models who were faking friendliness towards him just in order to cut into the line.

A passionate marriage ensues, with children, and – fuelled by his belief in her – a more daring career in producing films that she had envisaged the day she went for an interview to be the PA to the assistant of a development director in documentary filmmaking. Like her spouse, she’s come up from very little (“his dad did accounts for a car show room in Bromley”), so she takes a wicked delight in running rings round the privileged. Her outspokenly funny chats are interspersed with glimpses of this woman at home playing with her two small children. These amusing scenes, excellently designed by Es Devlin, are faintly disquieting. Partly, that’s because we always only get a momentary look at the full-colour version of the large family kitchen/sitting room before its various hues are eerily swamped in the one pale shade, save for the odd toy, obliterating personality. Partly, it’s because the theatrical convention whereby adult performers interact with infants who remain invisible here, in Turner’s immaculate production, seems purposely a bit strained and artificial – and poignant.

So it’s not entirely a surprise when the marriage suddenly starts to unravel. “I had thought that the man I loved had changed. But this was so much worse. This was realising that he had never existed in the first place.” I don’t want to give away too much or muffle the impact of what transpires. But I can say that Kelly’s play powerfully roots this in male psychology and that Mulligan is superb at suggesting a woman struggling to maintain her composure so that can she meet us on this desolate ground with the facts and her thoughts about the matter. Her clarity and her little pained pauses are quietly harrowing. You might have expected that a piece that begins so cheerily and end so chasteningly would feel broken-backed or schizoid. But this doesn’t because Kelly convinces you that the husband, like many men, is a disaster waiting to happen and because the energy and vividness of the writing never let up. A remarkable return for Mulligan.

Until 17 March (

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