By John Lombard
Canberra Theatre Centre
The Playhouse. Reviewed 24 March. On until 28 March.
Our culture sneers at teenage frenzy, dismissing celebrity infatuation as the misfire of haywire hormones. The new Australian musical Fangirls instead celebrates the ecstasy of adulation with wry humour and feminist insight.
Bright spark Edna (Karis Oka) is a scholarship student obsessed with Brit pop star Harry (real life idol AYDAN), convinced that the young star must feel as trapped by the celebrity junket as she is by her meagre life. When Harry’s boy band announces an Australian tour, Edna uses all of her considerable ingenuity to dismantle the many barriers between her and the man of her fanfic daydreams.
Fangirls music and book creator Yve Blake draws from life, with an authentic depiction of an everyday Australian schoolgirl plugged into international online fandom: a life split between harried microwave dinners with her shiftwork mum and imagined trysts with her dream boy as they fight together in the zombie apocalypse. AYDAN’s own journey from reality TV star to teen pop social media craze also parallels his character, as well as echoing Harry Styles of One Direction.
Direction by Paige Rattray is sublime, with the cast giving performances of power, character and clarity. Karis Oka is exceptional as the gangly and gifted Edna, convincing as both a lovelorn teen and a threat to unguarded soyboys. Amy Hume’s work as voice and dialect coach is noteworthy, with the cast pinning the authentic sound of Australian schoolgirl talk like a radiant butterfly.
Blake’s music is catchy, twisting the shimmer of generic teenpop into something playful, unassuming and ravenous, with the bold dancing choreographed by Leonard Mickelo a perfect fit for ebullient soundscape.
After a nourishing slice-of-life first half some zany plot twists dial up the absurdity, but these complications are deployed too late, and not given enough breathing room to unfold into sharper satire. There is some gentle commentary on manipulative beauty standards and corporate manufactured heartthrobs, but the savage and anarchic intent of the musical is that it honours the passions of teenagers, treating Edna’s quest as seriously as any knight’s pursuit of a grail.
Fangirls is a must-see, a boisterous, exquisitely polished and uniquely Australian musical, with a timely reminder that within the heart of every obsessed teen, there is the blissful transcendence and dreadful threat of the frenzied, exultant fury.