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Fangirls (Arts Centre Melbourne) – theatre review

Think back. You’re 14 and nothing in this world (and I do mean nothing) means more to you than your total infatuation with your teen idol. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You daydream of him having eyes only for you. You have to find a way. Whatever it takes. That is the starting point for the wickedly clever musical Fangirls.

In this case Edna (Karis Oka) is that 14-year-old – a smart girl on a full scholarship to a private school. She comes from working class stock. Her mother, Caroline (Danielle Barnes), is a nurse. Try as she does, her mum’s attempts to spend time with Edna are regularly thwarted because all Edna wants is “space”.

Photos by Mark Gambino

Like many girls her age, Edna has a massive “thing” for Harry (Aydan Calafiore), lead singer for a band known as True Connection (Harry modelled on Harry Styles from One Direction). Her besties are Brianna (Shubshri Kandiah) and Jules (Chika Ikogwe), both of whom are also Harry fans, but not like Edna, who believes she understands Harry like no one else. Truth be told, Jules hasn’t been very nice to Edna of late.

It is a popular myth that Harry’s every waking moment is carefully managed and controlled. Edna gets it into her head that she has to liberate him from such a subjugated and smothering existence. She envisages being with him and has even resorted to penning some startling fan fiction, which will see the pair on the run (as played out in the opening scene of Fangirls). Her jottings win admiration from another Harry acolyte, gay guy Saltyspringl (James Majoos), who Edna approaches to help her with a prologue to her story.

Next comes the news that Harry and the band are about to tour Australia and the mad scramble for tickets begins. Only, even though Edna is desperate to attend, Caroline says they don’t have the money to spare. Earlier she had all but dismissed Edna’s preoccupation with the good-looking pop star. The final straw comes when despite Jules convincing her mother to fork out extra money for tickets for Brianna and Edna, when push comes to shove, she only obtains one additional ticket and Jules gives that to Brianna. Edna is heartbroken, but hatches a plan so everyone will take notice of her. In fact, before interval things move down a dark path.

After the break, Yve Blake – whose brainchild Fangirls is (she wrote the book, music and lyrics) – takes us in an entirely unexpected direction and that is part of the genius of this production. Suffice to say, Edna does get her wish to meet Harry face to face.

The show features brilliant vignettes of being a teenager, totally consumed by devotion to the perfect deity that is your crush. While decidedly fun, it also has some important things to say about judgment, body image, respect, sexism and obsession. What makes Fangirls so compelling is its attention to detail, including the language used by youth.

Five large video screens dominate the stage and their offerings are diverse, among them the faces of Harry’s devoted fans and the anointed one himself. Simple props – representing different facets of the story, such as Edna’s bedroom, the family kitchen/dining room and the school change room – are brought in as required to complete the perfect picture. Naturally, Harry’s visage is everywhere. Think bedspreads, pillows, beanbags etc.

The piece features some crackling dialogue and compelling, original songs delivered with aplomb by a largely young and enthusiastic cast (nine in total). With a powerful and dynamic voice, Karis Oka is outstanding in the lead role. I particularly warmed to Danielle Barnes’ empathetic portrayal of Edna’s mum. James Majoos commands our attention as the male fan who befriends Edna and gives the narrative arc a kick along.

Chika Ikogwe fits comfortably into the dominant personality required by the girl who is giving Edna a hard time, someone who longs for a boyfriend and a father who will be there for her. Shubshri Kandiah displays vulnerability, empathy and strength as the friend with divided loyalties, who wants to be “hot” and comes to stand up for girls not to be dictated to by boys. Aydan Calafiore displays all the characteristics of a young man touched by fame.

Great credit must go to Yve Blake, director Paige Rattray, and the cast and crew for crafting a work that is relatable, funny, reflective and somewhat scary. Fangirls is a fresh Aussie musical – a real winner – that deserves to be taken to the West End and Broadway. It is on at The Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, until 9th May, 2021.

Alex First

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