Review written by Flossie Waite
A Theatre Centre production
Touring nationally until November 23rd
For ages 14+
As an exploration of modern life as a teenage girl, Layla’s Room ticks every box: there’s friendship trauma, school pressure, body image issues, over-sexualisation, harassment, stalking, bullying and alienation, depression and self-harm, family illness, divorced parents, the circulation of a supposedly ‘explicit’ image, the same grim excuses of “boys will be boys” and “banter”, school authorities turning a blind eye, a refusal to believe victims. When researching this production, Theatre Centre surveyed 1000 UK teenagers, and it’s as though the play is trying to include every answer they gave. By packing in so much, the play’s educational ambitions are laid bare at the expense of theatrical experience.
Layla (Shanice Sewell) is packing up her bedroom. As she throws books and bras into boxes, she tells us why she is leaving – she’s fallen out with best friend Monica (Emma White), whose boyfriend Joe (Alex Stedman) and his friend Ryan have embarked on a campaign of harassment against her. What began with bra pinging and name-calling, turns into stalking her home, grabbing her in the street, putting hands up her skirt and down her top, and worse. Without witnesses, the school do nothing; for drawing attention to her treatment, Layla is ostracised by the rest of her year, who silently accept boys’ behaviour to “keep the peace”. So, now Layla is moving, away from the area and into a new school.
At 15 years old Layla is a straight-A student – massively ambitious, extremely clever, and very clued-up when it comes to feminism. She is, essentially, unusual, equipped with an intellect and eloquence that ground, shape and propel her battle against the bullies whilst simultaneously seeming to highlight her case as particularly unfortunate – her story becomes one of lost potential as Layla is forced to miss school and her grades drop. Though surely unintentional, the threat of academic failure at times distracts from the real issue – that what happens to Layla is horrendous, whether she’s a star pupil or not. Her super-brainy status can also feel forced and unrealistic – as if Hermione Granger went to school in Hackney, not Hogwarts: after a distressing run-in with Monica’s boyfriend, Layla storms off saying: “I was so infuriated, I went to the library to do my homework.”
At the same time, Sabrina Mahfouz’s script is peppered with contemporary slang (“it’s long!”) – this, like Monica’s rude girl accent, is unconvincing, a self-conscious stab at sounding ‘young’. In fact, though Layla’s Room makes all the right noises, it doesn’t feel authentic. When Monica is locked in a shed by her abusive boyfriend as punishment for some fabricated wrong, she is initially distraught and desperate for help; upon release, she comes out laughing – not a nervous laugh to cover her panic, but the same girlish giggle of earlier scenes, as if she were still doing bum squats with Layla or gossiping about boys.
It’s all a bit safe. Evan Placey’s Girls Like That (2014) examined similar issues but was praised for being “shockingly frank” and asking “uncomfortable questions”. The most disquieting element of Layla’s Room is how routine and predictable it all seems, and whilst there’s much to be said for holding up a mirror to everyday experiences, the show needs to be bolder and more frank if it wants to begin a conversation with the audience and push them into real-world action.
Layla is not only exceptional in terms of her brains, but in terms of her options – how many girls in the same circumstances have a chance to leave it all behind? Granted her mental resilience is remarkable and moving is in no way ideal for her, but ultimately Layla has an unusual opportunity to escape, something that just isn’t possible for the majority. Any concluding sense of empowerment is undermined – the boys will continue to be boys, but it’s an unsatisfactory case of out of sight, out of mind.
Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.