Poignant love story survives bleakest of times
The play is set in the cold winter of 1989, but as I read it lots of parallels with today became apparent.
In fact, this poignant love story began to seem as relevant – politically and socially – today as when it was written."
Bristol theatre director Emel Yilmaz is explaining why a play written and set over 20 years ago – about a couple stuck in what we'd now call the 'squeezed middle' – leapt up off the page at her and demanded a staging.
My Girl comes from the pen of Barrie Keeffe, best known for his screenplay of the 1980 gangster classic The Long Good Friday.
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Keeffe's intimate bedsit play is written and set around a decade later: we're now in the middle of a long 1989 winter, in a cold East London flat during the last days of the Thatcher government. And its residents have a few things on their minds.
Sam, a social worker on the eve of his 30th birthday, is late for work: Anita, heavily pregnant with their second child, is wearing her coat inside out for warmth. The couple are struggling financially, and their firstborn keeps them up at night.
Anita is worried that worse poverty is to come. Sam is frustrated by his work, and by the government's cuts to the welfare system, yet still believes that he can help change people's lives.
The couple bicker and argue and, before an eventual reconciliation, drift further apart.
"It's the story of an idealistic family struggling to hold onto each other and to their beliefs amid the deep cuts being made by Thatcher's government," Emel explains.
"It may be 1989, but it really doesn't feel that far off from today.
"Since the 2008 recession, many people have less money, fewer prospects and decreased job security. It is an uncomfortable time for many people and, much like Sam and Anita, a lot of people feel undervalued and under-represented by the current government."
Emel graduated last year from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School's well-regarded MA directing course, and has taken the reins for various professional productions since graduating – including Lunch Box for London's Soho Theatre, and a much-praised Scaramouche Jones at the Alma Tavern Theatre in Clifton.
The show, in fact, has Bristol Old Vic Theatre School quality stamped all over it: fellow graduate Sarah Warren has designed the production, while 2011 acting graduate Mia Keadell joins well-known Bristol actor Gerard Cooke on the two-strong cast.
Emel has chosen an unusual setting for the play: a room above a café on North Street, Bedminster.
When you look a little closer, though, the choice isn't quite so strange. For one thing, Bristol's theatre scene has thrown up brilliant performances in all sorts of leftfield theatres over the past few years. More importantly, though, Emel has chosen to take us right inside Sam and Anita's pinched lives, by reproducing their world exactly as they would recognise it.
"I am keen to explore the boundaries of realism in theatre," she explains. "For me, the stage is more than simply an acting platform – it's an environment where a story is shared. I love to explore story- telling in unconventional settings."
Audiences are in for an immersive experience; you'll take your seats on sofas, chairs and on the floor, in a living room furnished faithfully in late Eighties tones, while Sam and Anita's story unfolds all around you.
"When I read My Girl I was taken by the simplicity of the setting – all the action takes place in the living room," Emel explains. "For realism's sake, I wanted to simply find a large living room, rather than transforming a conventional venue. I always want to create realistic, three-dimensional characters, and to break down barriers between actor and audience. The audience will be immersed, becoming part of the performance. Is it theatre? Or life itself?"