Review: School Girls (Lyric Hammersmith)

Subtitled “or, the African Mean Girls play”, School Girls is enjoying its UK premiere after a successful off-Broadway run in 2017.

The place is a boarding school in Ghana; the year is 1986. The backdrop of a glowing sun (set by Paul Wills, lighting by Matt Haskins) suggests the African heat, but the themes are universal.

In sarcastic and nasty Queen Bee Paulina (Tara Tijani)’s gang are Ama (Heather Agyepong), Nana (Jadesola Obunjo in her professional stage debut), Mercy (Bola Akeju) and Gifty (Francesca Amewudah-Rivers).

Although they all have their own distinct personalities, they defer to the most popular girl, who boasts at one point “I’ve been running this school for years.”

Production photo fot School Girls

Jocelyn Bioh’s amusing play has lots of humour alongside moments of caustic shock as everyone gets excited for the Miss Ghana pageant. When a light-skinned new student, Ericka (Anna Shaffer), joins the gang, conflicts threaten to spill over.

The mood is joyous when the headmistress Francis (Alison A Addo) and her girls enjoy the sun and the freedom of being on the cusp of adulthood.

Paulina and Ama are heading for college; Mercy and Gifty, cousins and partners in silliness, are sixteen and show it; Nana struggles with her eating but stays sweet and sunny.

With a lively and engaged audience, every moment hits home, from Paulina getting some home truths to the casual malice of Miss Ghana 1966, Eloise (Deborah Alli), a former bully and friend of Francis who dismisses girls like herself as “darkies”.

Production photo for School Girls

Monique Touko’s direction gives all the characters time and space and cleverly mines the comedy in the girls’ puffed dresses (costumes by Kinnetia Isidore) and choir solos.

It also highlights the plight of girls abandoned or abused by their families, whatever the intention, and the standard of beauty held up to be straight hair, light skin, and a slim body.

All the performances are excellent, with Tijani bringing a believable adolescent bitchiness to Paulina, and Shaffer underlying the harsh issues faced by mixed-race girls.

Obunjo’s Nana visibly crumples under the verbal abuse of the popular girl she idolises; while mischievous pair Akeju’s Mercy and Amewudah-Rivers steal scenes with ease.

Production photo for School Girls

In the one scene between Francis and Eloise it is clear the “Mean Girls” mentality rarely fades, and past antagonism is hard to forget. The former Miss Ghana of twenty years ago is self-serving and vain: perhaps the eventual ending is for the best.

School Girls is a sparkling, thoughtful comedy inspired by true events in 2011 where a biracial candidate was chosen to compete as Miss Ghana.

It is running at Lyric Hammersmith Theatre until 22 Jul: tickets here.


Image credit: Manuel Harlan