GLEE & ME

★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _ISAAC MILNE.   at _ROYAL EXCHANGE MANCHESTER.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _30th OCT.

October 28, 2021
images © Helen Murray/Royal Exchange Theatre 2021.

Glee & Me is the second one-woman show to come out of the Royal Exchange since their post-COVID reopening, the first having been Lauryn Redding’s Bloody Elle, which premiered in June. Being amongst the first of new Artistic Directors Bryony Shanahan and Roy Alexander Weise’s shows (their tenure starting mere months before the pandemic), they seem indicative of a fresh new start – one of individuality, hope, and love, in the face of life’s most terrifying challenges.

16-year-old Lola (Liv Hill) has just found out she has Glioma Multiforme – an aggressive brain tumour. Affectionately re-naming it ‘Glee’, she quickly casts off her former anxieties and turns to making the remaining year of her life the best one yet.

Naturally, that is easier said than done.

The script, in its premiere production here, is penned by Stuart Slade, who adeptly handles the subject matter with humour and sensitivity. He writes through the ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ mentality, resulting in a play that comments more on the human spirit than it does illness or grief. It’s a refreshing take on a subject matter that has almost become a genre in its own right – particularly within film – and he executes it here with a flourish and charm that makes it compelling to watch, and one that keeps a lively sense of pace; the production’s unbroken 90-minute runtime barely noticeable to the audience. Be it in moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, warm humour, or acute sorrow, Slade’s writing is intensely human, full of an honesty and heart that make for a direct and personal audience experience.

There are occasional blips where the writing feels slightly off-target, though. In one instance, Lola suggests there is irony in the fact she is performing a monologue when her condition means she is soon going to lose her speech, and some of these more ‘meta’ moments don’t quite land. Although a sense of connection and empathy is achieved by the monologue being directly delivered to the audience, slightly post-modern acknowledgement of things like the form and structure of the play only serve to disconnect us from the moment. They take us out of Lola’s life, and back into the theatre; a shame when it is so effectively enthralling elsewhere. Slade has a tendency to lean a little too far into his teenage colloquialisms, too, littering the text with ‘man’, ‘sub-par’, ‘obvs’ and so on, which sometimes register as forced.

However, Hill carries them off extremely well, demonstrating an ability to deliver the occasionally bumpy text in a laid-back and easy-going, yet emotive, way. She imbues Lola with life – an energetic, charismatic and fast-talking girl, ready to fight for what she believes in at a moment’s notice, but ready to admit her faults too. At a very youthful-looking 21 years of age, Hill plays a convincing 16-year-old, not only in looks, but also with her flitting attention and sarcastic proclamations of opinion.

Bloody Elle (pictured above) was an earlier 2021 offering from the Royal Exchange Manchester that also presented an affecting and ultimately uplifting one-woman tour-de-force.

With youthfulness and humour abound, occasionally she occasionally loses some vocal clarity, her words slightly mumbled or fumbled together, which can lead to a little confusion, or a joke not hitting its mark. Thankfully such moment are in the minority, though, with Hill managing to bring a brightness and clarity to the play for the most part.

A strong sense of character is maintained throughout, but Hill has also clearly worked with director Nimmo Ismail to establish a sense of journey that perhaps would not be as apparent on the page. Whilst Lola tries to stay constant in her outlook, there are falters and obstacles as the story progresses, and its here that Hill and Ismail do a fantastic job at highlighting these subtly – the cracks beginning to appear in her optimistic shell.

There is one moment in particular, after Lola has a difficult realisation, where an underlying bitterness creeps into her voice – never pointed, but beautifully indicative of the turmoil that just under the surface. Hill is also brilliant in the play’s final scenes, displaying a collage of despair, hope, resilience and innocence that make for a very moving crescendo. If anything, the more light-hearted and optimistic focus for the rest of the play only increases the impact of the more sincere moments, where the mask is pulled away and the bare truth underneath is exposed.

Hill’s performance is abetted by some confidence technical beats, too. In one of the piece’s final moments, practically every light in the theatre is powered to full intensity. As an audience member you feel exposed, visible, seen by those opposite you, as well as Lola herself. It’s an extremely clever piece of lighting design from Jess Bernberg, reflecting the weight of the piece all back on the audience, pushing the final focus onto what it would feel like were you to be in Lola’s shoes, or, perhaps, how lucky you are that you are not.

It’s indicative of the effective technical design throughout. Ismail and designer Anna Yates make use of hidden trapdoors, versatile on-stage lighting and directional sound, which not only keep the production visually interesting via a sense of unpredictability, but also require Lola to manipulate them herself, manoeuvring them to different positions, or even using them as props, such as with her phone. It lends both the performer and character a palpable sense of command over the space. This is her show, her story, which only adds to the endearment and empathy with her.

Overall, it’s a highly successful piece – a play that is always compelling, always engaging, but saves its fuel to deliver a few killer punches, rather than a consistent barrage across the whole. Its emotional journey is carefully considered and precisely charted, which ultimately makes for one of the more empathetical experiences that theatre has to offer. Hill makes Lola so real – so endearing and wonderful – that you whole-heartedly share her laughter and tears both. It is this sense of soul that makes Glee & Me such a fantastic audience experience, and one that provides a strong emotional response whilst you are in the auditorium, and even more indelible one to think on once you have left.

A resonant and engaging character study, Hill and her creatives will bring a smile to the face, a tear to the eye and leave you with plenty to mull over long after the (very) bright lights have dimmed.

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