Printable CopyFANGIRLS
The Adelaide Festival
Adelaide Showgrounds
Until 14 Mar 2021

Review by Sarah Westgarth

In 2015, the internationally beloved One Direction announced Zayn Malik would be leaving the band. As fans across the globe mourned, writer Yve Blake was struck by the dismissive tone the media was using to describe the emotional reaction. In response, Blake began to work on ‘Fangirls’, a powerful and passionate musical that explores the challenges of being a teenage girl, and the outlets used to deal with them. The show immediately became a smash hit, and it is not hard to see why. It is funny, but never mean-spirited. It is moving, but never manipulative. Blake’s script, music and lyrics capture a voice and perspective we don’t often see portrayed in such a loving, complicated way, and in doing so creates a production that is not only important, but thoroughly entertaining.

‘Fangirls’ centres around fourteen-year-old Edna, the only child of a single mum who attends a private school on a scholarship. Plagued with the feeling that she is not good enough, Edna finds her solace in the UK based pop group True Connection, whose front man Harry has thoroughly captured her heart to the point where she believes they are destined to cross paths. While Edna’s friends think she’s crazy, and her mum warns that the band is a product of marketing, our protagonist has an online community that seems to understand. She writes fanfiction with them, shares links and theories, and while it’s all based on a fantasy, it is clear this is a space that is more real than her real life. Edna feels out of place everywhere else, but here is where she belongs.

While on its surface ‘Fangirls’ is about a young girl with crush, Blake knows this isn’t just Edna’s story. This is the story of so many teenagers who develop an obsession like this, and while the show may poke some fun at the dramatics at play, the approach is undeniably affectionate. There’s a reason why music or movies or television connects with us this way, particularly if our reality feels messy and cruel. The songs are all catchy tributes to pop hits, the characters are written and performed with compassion, and the message is empowering. So much harm is done when we don’t validate the experiences of young people, and so much strength is found in listening to their voices.

Every member of the cast is clearly committed to the vision of this show, evidenced by the electric chemistry between the small ensemble that take on numerous roles. Even the minor characters feel like fully realised people with their own stories to tell, and the performers that take them on are magnetic in their portrayals. To single anyone out seems absurd, as it’s their collective energy that makes this show what it is; however, Karis Oka in the leading role as Edna is truly extraordinary. She makes it seem effortless, disappearing into the incredibly complex leading character and allowing you to root for her even when she is making questionable choices. Her supporting cast are all equally as watchable, from James Majoos’ delightful turn as Edna’s online bestie to Danielle Barnes’ warm portrayal of Edna’s mother Caroline, every one of them deserves a spotlight.

The performances are all dramatically enhanced by the production design and technical aspects of the production, which are kept fairly simple yet exquisite in their details. Video is used to expand the onstage world into cyberspace, while lighting and sound turns the blank stage into an epic concert venue. Together with the pitch-perfect music, this show uses all the tools at its disposal to make the emotional stakes—and the laughs—hit as hard they possibly can.

What Yve Blake has created here is remarkable. There is no doubt that the heightened world and some of the language will struggle to cross generational barriers, and that many audiences may find the subject matter unfamiliar and even alienating. But to those for whom this is a world they understand, ‘Fangirls’ will stir the heart and soul, with more going on than may first appear. The parasocial relationship between fan and celebrity is examined in all its complexity. Blake understands the value of it, as well as the dangers. And most importantly, this is a show that looks at young people and really sees them. It is unflinching in its examination of the teenage emotional experience, and unafraid to see young women as sexual beings, capable of multitudes, and more powerful than they realise. It is for them as much as it is about them. May we never dismiss them again.