Starting secondary school was shitty. I had forgotten quite how shitty – those memories were tucked away in the back of my brain, underneath the other awful rites of passage I’d rather forget, like having nits and the first time my period leaked. But watching Katie’s Birthday Party, I am back in Room 8 of the Tower Block for registration with my form tutor Miss Wetherspoon. It was only my second day of Big School and the Head of Year walked in to see how we were all getting on, glanced over at me struggling to find my planner and in front of the whole class went through my brand new bag, saying something about me being a disorganized girl and that whilst that might have been okay at my old school, it wasn’t acceptable here. I was mortified (I so carefully packed my bag the night before!), embarrassed (the cool girl who already had big boobs was sniggering) and devastated (I hadn’t even had a chance to try on the compulsory gym knickers and my reputation at the school was already in tatters). Katie experiences a similarly shaming event that springs from that very particular Year 7 insecurity, when you have no idea what makes each teacher tick, take every threat as a promise, and are terrified of getting into trouble.
And that’s just the academic side of things. All the social stuff is far scarier. Katie’s glad we’re at her 12th birthday party, but she really wishes her BFF Tracy was there. Tracy’s busy though, she’s got another birthday thing for a girl in her class at her new school. It’s not Tracy’s fault that she passed the exams and Katie didn’t, and that she likes her new school and Katie doesn’t, but she could at least answer Katie’s calls, or reply to her messages (there are blue ticks!), or like her posts, or share her videos. Still, this is a party (there’s balloons and birthday cake) so we should play a game; as Katie’s the birthday girl it’s up to her: Truth or Dare.
Katie’s Birthday Party throws a group of strangers together in a new situation. It’s interesting to watch how everyone reacts and interacts when asked to volunteer for Truth or Dare, or take a selfie, or join in a Harlem Shake video. It can be a bit awkward and uncomfortable, everyone looking around to check what other people are doing, willing to participate but staying close to their chairs, feeling exposed in the horse-shoe setting and desperately trying not to stick out, nominating their friends or bending to peer-pressure. It has that first day at school quality, with its tension and underlying terror.
Mary-Frances Doherty plays Katie without the affected ‘child-like’ voice or mannerisms so often adopted when playing a young person. Having an adult perform as a child without altering their behaviour or appearance in any drastic way is an important reminder of how sophisticated a 12-year-old girl, and the reality she faces, really is. Katie has reached an important intersection, one foot lingering on a path filled with primary school friends and limited homework, the other hovering over a road of revision and puberty. She lists her thighs as the thing she’d most like to change about herself, lusts after Zac Efron, and fears the rejection of her peers both in school and online. At the same time, she’s shy about kissing boys and loves playing chubby bunnies (stuffing as many marshmallows in your mouth as possible whilst still saying ‘chubby bunnies’).
Whoever said school days are the best days of your life must have been home-tutored. Katie’s Birthday Party is a hugely relevant and relatable account of a painful process, told with honesty and insight. I wish I’d seen it when I was 11, and – perhaps even more so – I wish my Head of Year had seen it prior to my arrival at the school.
Before I saw Katie’s Birthday Party I was somewhat wary – it had been hyped so much by those who had seen it that I feared disappointment. But all the buzz was justified. It was one of the best shows I saw at Imaginate; it is one of the best productions for young people I’ve ever seen. Chapeau.
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