Last night, the unforgettable writer and performer Michaela Coel took me and everyone else at Bush Theatre back to a world I’ve long tried to forget. A testament to her perception, her chameleon like performance skills and her storytelling prowess, is the way she made this world of horny fourteen year-olds, exasperated teachers and awkward bus journeys seem not just bearable but weirdly fascinating again.
She also made me feel a little guilty for having neglected the voices she brought to the stage. While that may not have been her intention, she ultimately brought such vivid life to something so unbearably extreme and yet frustratingly real, that for me, she demonstrated a perfect performance of a highly polished show.
Bear that in mind when I tell you her show requires one chair and no one but Michaela on stage. She is supported with light that transports you and sound that makes you move even if it doesn’t move you and her conviction in her characters is inescapable. She plays Tracey Gordon who measures everyone by how chubby they are (taking care to note the ones who have such pretty faces no one cares about the weight) which she reminds us, among other things, informs their place in the classroom. Cleverly, she shows us the ways her gaggle of classmates navigate their places and narrate their stories, form their bonds and betray their friends. On the cusp of adulthood, which seems way too soon when you’re watching from afar, Tracey tells us in her indomitably excited way how she faces up to some of her harshest challenges.
There’s a gut-wrenching one about her best friend’s boyfriend, a searing one about the nerdy, religious girl in class and a sweet, awkward one about a boy called Connor. But the one that sticks most in my head is the relationship she depicts between a class of kids and their teacher. It’s dark, it’s contradictory, it’s cyclical and, after she’s made me forget, it’s in these scenes that Michaela reminds me I’m not a teenager. And I have no idea what I would do if I found myself part of that classroom.
But between these more sinister moments there is Tracey’s hilarious take on her first crush, her discovery of the morning after pill and her appreciation for Indian bus drivers. These many strands make up a fantastic image of a complex adolescence still undefined and undetermined to be any one thing.
Chewing Gum Dreams runs at Bush Theatre as part of RADAR 2012.