Above – (l-r) Ngoc Phan, Chi Nguyen, Fiona Choi, Gemma Chua-Tran, Jenny Zhou. Photo – Jeff Busby

High school. It’s a place many of us do not wish to revisit. Awkward teenage years, hormones, and the unspoken rules that decide who reigns supreme in the social structure effect all students throughout their tenure. No more so than at the prestigious ladies’ college Laurinda, a fictional private school based on very real experiences.

The new Australian play, based on the book of the same name by Alice Pung has been adapted for the stage by Diana Nguyen and director Petra Kalive and centres around Lucy (Ngoc Phan), a Vietnamese-Australian daughter of working-class migrant parents who is accepted into the prestigious all-girls school Laurinda, through a scholarship.

Beginning in present day, Lucy is forced to confront her high school demons after a triggering event with the help of a spiritual guide/imaginary friend/delusion Linh (Gemma Chua-Tran), who appears in a banana costume before whisking Lucy into the halls of Laurinda circa 1997. I’m unsure of the meaning behind the banana costume or whether this was something explained more thoroughly in the novel. Having not read the book, I wonder if there were in-jokes and subtle intricacies I missed as some of the content went over my head.

The multi-talented cast whip between characters in their roles which are double/triple cast with stunning efficiency and have the range to play both teenagers and adults with ease.

The trio of mean girls, better known as ‘The Cabinet’ are representative of the social structure within Laurinda and how that then transfers into the real world. While they rule the school as the ‘Pink Ladies’ from Grease, the ‘Plastics’ from Mean Girls or the ‘Heather’s’ from Heathers did before them, unlike their earlier incarnations, there are no redeeming qualities from this group of selfish, self-obsessed teenagers who make it their mission to torment and torture all in the school from pupil to principal.

Played by Chua-Tran, Chi Nguyen, and Jenny Zhou the three are remarkably nasty and cringeworthy as Brodie, Amber and Chelsea who were originally written as Caucasian characters to highlight the racism within the school. While the casting of Asian actors in the role is an interesting choice, it poses some problems later in the play when racial slurs are hurled at each other and lose some of their power as it becomes more comedic. There is a nod to the audience at the beginning of the play when Lucy notices her friend Katie (Fiona Choi) is now Asian and points this out to Linh who asks, ‘why can’t an Asian actor play a white person?’ The play is at times beautiful, particularly the moments between Lucy and her parents. Speaking in untranslated Vietnamese, these moments are the most compelling and authentic.

The sparce set was unable to fill the space of the Southbank Theatre and the stage felt empty most of the time, as small set pieces (a piano, toilet block or space aged Jetsons-esque columns) appeared to signify a location or era change. In addition, a large screen portraying different locations and Linh throughout the play did a lot of the heavy lifting of scene changes. Unlike the recent production of Dorian Gray these on-screen enhancements didn’t add to the production, rather it felt to be a lazy way to move between scenes.

There were a lot of great moments in Laurinda, a lot of uncomfortable moments which I think could have been explored more. The relationship between Lucy and Mrs Leslie (Choi) was brilliant in its portrayal of the ‘white saviour’ but a lot of the more serious aspects of racism, classism and bullying weren’t investigated. Rather moments of fluff and 90s nostalgia with The Backstreet Boys and Cher soundtracking the production was a missed opportunity to ask what living in the ‘lucky country’ looks like to all Australians, from all socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, and classes.

Event details

Melbourne Theatre Company presents
based on the novel by Alice Pung | adapted for the stage by Diana Nguyen

Director Petra Kalive

Venue: Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, VIC
Dates: 6 August – 10 September 2022
Bookings: www.mtc.com.au

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