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Kelly's Girl

Award-winning British playwright Dennis Kelly may be best known to audiences for his adaptations of Matilda and Pinocchio, but Girls & Boys is very different kind of family story. He talks to us about fatherhood, relationships and believing women.

By Sarah Corridon

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Dennis Kelly’s play Girls & Boys sprang from a place few other of his stories have. It came from a need to explore a topic he felt was grossly underrepresented on our screens and stages.

The one-woman play is the story of an intensely passionate relationship – and its extreme highs and devastating lows – told from the woman’s point of view. It had its world premiere on the West End in 2018, with The Great Gatsby’s Carey Mulligan as the woman. For its Australian Premiere at Melbourne Theatre Company in 2022, Helpmann Award-winning director Kate Champion will guide actor Nikki Shiels (Home, I’m Darling) through the play’s deft comedy and gut-wrenching drama.

Kelly’s works have consistently been produced by some of London’s foremost theatres notably the Hampstead, with which he has a long working relationship. In 2006, he made his television debut on BBC Three with the sitcom Pulling (co-written with comedian Sharon Horgan), which was a run-away success. Several years later he worked with Australia’s Tim Minchin to create Matilda: The Musical, which quickly transferred to the West End and then Broadway. His work has been produced in at least 20 countries and adapted into numerous languages.

Fatherhood and family

Like much of Kelly’s work to date, Girls & Boys focuses on family. After all, family pervades every aspect of our lives. ‘It’s such an important part of who we are as people. It informs so much of what we become, he says. Kelly himself became a first-time dad to a baby girl two years ago. It’s a role he’s taking more seriously than any other, and he explains that he now understands the stakes for the first time. ‘I would absolutely die for her, and I’d probably kill for her too, to be honest.’

He started writing Girls & Boys at least five years before fatherhood dawned, however, and long before the world was gripped by the #metoo movement. ‘I would write a very different play today,’ he says, ‘because we’re living in a very different world. I’ve been interested in male violence for a long time and this movement suddenly forced us all to look, microscopically, at how men act in society.’

Strong characters, who are female

Creating his female lead was easy, Kelly notes. The character was an amalgam of all the brilliant women he has worked with over his 20-year career. Actors, directors, artistic directors, writers and producers he’s long-admired found their way into the role. ‘I guess things that impress you about people sort of stick in your mind over the years. And also their flaws. Because this character is deeply flawed as well. I mean I really like her, but she is flawed.’ There are parts of Kelly in her too, he says. ‘All writers are writing bits of themselves into characters. It’s impossible not to.’

 

It’s very important we don’t identify her as a victim, because our public perception of how victims are is wrong. Victims are human beings.

 

Carey Mulligan expressed interest in the part early on. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who got it the way Carey did,’ Kelly says. Some nights it felt like a stand-up comedy gig; she just had the audience in the palm of her hand. But the most impressive thing about her was her capacity to understand the character. Early on she said, “I never want to cry.” I mentioned that to the director and we made a rule that there would be no tears.’

A rollercoaster relationship

The play begins, ordinarily enough, with the woman sharing the story of how she meets her husband. It’s funny and human, because most first meetings between long-term lovers often are. The narrative arc centres on their unfolding relationship and the rollercoaster ride it takes – inspired, Kelly says, by a string of his own failed relationships. ‘I don’t think I’m a particularly good person to be in a relationship with,’ he admits, chuckling. ‘Often a relationship feels like doing an Ouija board. You put your hands on it and suddenly the board starts moving to either yes or no and you don’t know who’s moving it, but it’s bloody moving.’

Kelly deliberately centred the woman’s point of view. ‘I tend to believe her,’ he says. ‘At some point she says, “I wasn’t perfect either.” But we definitely empathise with her because we hear her side of the story. For the majority of the play, [the incident] hasn’t happened to her,’ he elaborates, before pausing to consider his next line. ‘I felt I owed that to her. I owed it to her development to not give her [only] one facet or dimension of experience. It’s very important we don’t identify her as a victim, because our public perception of how victims are is wrong. Victims are human beings.’ Kelly believes that when we turn people into victims, we make them unlike us. We render them different and other, and a sort of victim ostracising occurs.

Comedy and tragedy

There’s no better way to shatter your audience than to have them in fits of laughter early in the piece, Kelly explains. ‘I think the humour helps the audience fall in love with her, which is particularly important in this play because we need to understand the level of tragedy she encounters. The truth is, whatever you feel going in or out of the auditorium – ‘whether it’s shock or disgust or loss’ – this story never happened, it’s not real. ‘But this does happen, all the time,’ the playwright emphasises,to real people and the pain and tragedy they feel is enormous.’

‘It’s not an easy play. It’s difficult,’ he continues. ‘A play should be like a person, sometimes funny, sometimes cruel; it should have all the facets that a person has: it should be loving and tragic as well.’

There’s so much you can explore on a stage that you can’t on a screen, Kelly explains. As a man with a split-career across both mediums, he would know. ‘This is a story that could only be done on stage. And it’s a story that needed to be told.’

Published on 29 September 2021

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