Australian-made, left-field works of musical theatre have cemented themselves among my favourite shows of any genre seen this year.
The Dismissal was the first, and it’s joined now by Fangirls, a vivid, very funny and authentic celebration of youthful passion.
The fangirl is Edna (played by Yve Blake, who wrote and composed the whole shebang), a scholarship girl at a prestigious high school. Exams are looming but all her energy is absorbed in the worship of UK pop sensations True Connection and its doe-eyed dreamboat frontman, Harry.
Edna’s mum Caroline (Sharon Millerchip) is worried, and does her best to explain to her daughter that her feelings are typical for her age and the product of cynical entertainment industry manipulation.
Big mistake. All that does is harden Edna’s resolve and drive a wider wedge between mother and daughter.
Out of the blue, a True Connection tour is announced and from that point on, Edna’s life is consumed, first in securing a ticket (an emotional rollercoaster in itself), and then by a wild scheme paralleling the fan fiction epic she’s writing with chat-room friend Saltypringl (James Majoos).
Taking her fiction to heart, Edna is convinced that Harry is depressed and in thrall to an exploitative management team. He must be saved – and who better than Edna, the only person who really understands him, to be his saviour?
Her life – and Harry’s – is about to get really weird.
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Tetchy and unrestrained, Edna is a figure of affectionate fun for the most part but Blake never stoops to making her obsessions and actions pathetic or pitiable. Edna’s passion is unreasonable, sure, but from it springs love, community and creativity (albeit of an unconventional variety). You can’t help but root for anyone who learns to drive from YouTube videos.
Blake’s peppy book strikes as authentically voiced and the mother-daughter tension is acute enough to make any parent wince. As the plot unfolds, she also creates space to pose a couple of probing questions: why, for example, are the obsessions of a girl (or a queer person, represented here by Saltypringl) seen as something less worthy than a boy’s worship of, say, a sports idol? What responsibility does the pop industry have to the fans it seduces and relies on?
Musically, it’s a strong show, too. Blake’s pop pastiches sparkle and producer David Muratore makes them throb seductively. A couple of them are absolute bangers. Her character solo numbers – Caroline’s Brave Thing, for example, with which Millerchip momentarily stills a buzzing audience – captivate.
David Fleisher’s set of glistening floor and wall-sized video panels facilitates giddy shifts between reality and fantasy, bedroom and pop concert stage. The video content (realised by Justin Harrison) is excellent – the wall-to-wall FaceTime chorus, especially.
Lighting (Emma Valente, with associate Ben Hughes) and sound (Michael Waters) give the show its powerful pulse. Leonard Mickelo’s choreography knowingly straddles send-up and celebration.
The performances are terrific across the board. Blake looks and seems very real out there, and Majoos – who made his mainstage debut with this show – is delightful as Saltypringl, an isolated gay teen living somewhere in Utah and quite possibly True Connection’s only boyfan.
Chika Ikogwe is wickedly funny and determined as Edna’s self-absorbed school peer Jules. Kimberley Hodgson and Ayesha Madon contribute strongly as teens Lily and Brianna, and the show benefits hugely from the fact that heartthrob Harry is played by the genuine article – rising pop star Aydan.
Tim Minchin took a precocious five-year-old seriously in Matilda and created a worldwide musical hit. Could Blake’s elevating story about a teenager reach similar heights someday?