"Glamorous temptations fuel coming-of-age rebellion"
by Edwin Reis for remotegoat on 13/03/15

A tirade of Japanese pop music and Anime-esque costumes sweeps ‘Harajuku Girls’ along at a brisk pace, as we follow Mari, Keiko and Yumi through their first post-school summer. Writer Francis Turnly, currently Playwright In Residence at the Tricycle Theatre, deftly contrasts old and new Japan, epitomised in the plight of the protagonist Mari.

Coaxed in by her party-loving friend Keiko, Mari (the excellent Haruka Abe) descends into hostessing in order to fund her impending acting training. Needless to say, her traditionally-minded father (Nomo Gakuji) disapproves, and her muted mother (Meg Kubota), who once had artistic ambitions of her own, is powerless to help. Though a few clichéd storylines creep in; “You need a real job. Stop dreaming”, and there are more than a few irritating Americanisms; “we were fooling around”, Turnly’s world premiere is, on the whole, excellently woven together, and presents an incredibly current feminist message – why should women have to degrade themselves in order to break the mould and forge eventual equality for future generations?

Director Jude Christian demands a lot from his talented cast, and aided by Cécile Trémolières’ fabulous set design, makes light work of short, snappy scenes which jump all over Tokyo. Sliding perspex doors, evoking images of traditional shoji doors, separate the upstage and downstage areas, and the multi-roling and onstage costume changes (though occasionally confusing, for example having Mari’s dad and lover played by the same actor with little differentiation in costume or characterisation) help create an atmosphere of a safe, enjoyable production, despite some dark subject matter and a few really rather sinister characters.

The actors handle tricky logistics incredibly well – each scene seems to require new costume, props and set, all slickly delivered by the ensemble. Elizabeth Tan, as the effervescent Keiko, brilliantly captures that friend we all have who lives in the moment and won’t take “I think I’ll just have an early night” as an answer. Keiko’s decline represents the true danger that these girls really do face, and Tan’s defiant performance allows us to empathise with a character that in other hands could have been distinctly unlikeable. Admirable support also comes from Kunjue Li as the simple but kind-hearted Yumi, who, despite failing all her exams, comes out with by far the most credit, a job and her own flat.

This is a thought-provoking coming-of-age piece, set against a backdrop of bouncy pop and glitzy, shallow lifestyles. Turnly unpicks the modern glamour of Tokyo to reveal the conservatism and danger that still lurks prevalently beneath. A play set firmly within Japan’s cultural identity, but with themes which are incredibly relevant worldwide.

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