After a hit debut run at Belvoir Theatre in 2020, the new musical Fangirls has made its way to the larger Seymour Center in Sydney to bring some preemptive post-pandemic music-mania to the stage.
The tale of three schoolgirls and their obsession with the boyband True Connection and lead singer Harry (yes, you may notice some similarities to a certain real life boyband), starts sweetly before spiralling into ecstatically devious realms.
Modern fandom is a funny thing, connecting people (often strangers on the Internet) around a common, and often misunderstood, passion. It can take many forms, from sci-fi fans mounting campaigns to save their favorite TV shows, to cosplay and fanfic, or to the darker edges of delusion and stalking.
Fangirls anchors itself in the world of teen-pop fandom, and very specifically to the adoration of a One Direction/Harry Styles figure. The show tries to open our eyes to the complex mix of incentives that turn teenagers into screaming, crying maniacs while keeping us laughing and dancing along.
Why is a boy’s adoration for a sports star more acceptable than a girl’s love of a popstar? Is it just patriarchal societal pressures trying to invalidate the emotions of women while supporting those of men? Is it just random hormones unleashed? Are these pop romantic projections priming young women to believe they are only whole when part of a relationship? How is a young person meant to react to hearing someone sing “I love you” in their ears repeatedly, on demand? As one onscreen news commentator observes, for these young fans this is the first taste of extreme emotion and it is dangerous to minimize the impact it has on them.
So far, so interesting. When Fangirls hits its mark, it soars! The commentary cuts as deep as the humour keeps you entertained. Some very smart story choices bring the satire into clear focus (mainly in the second act) and send the audience out on a high. The plot may swerve in unexpected ways, but it earns those swerves for the most part.
The show is maddeningly uneven though. The first act plods along, moving pieces into position. The direction veers between celebrating fandom to openly mocking it – and not in a loving, GalaxyQuest/Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping way. An over-reliance on video screens and flat lighting make it hard to focus on the action. The acoustics of the Seymour Centre don’t help the vocals (all excellent, but often lost in the space unless the performer is belting).
The small cast however earn 10s across the board – both for their vocals and their performances that are believably young and complex. Karis Oka plays the lead role of Edna with inviting naivety and charm. Her ever increasing sense of panic fuels the show with a heightened energy that takes the story to unexpected places. Aydan Calafiore (alumni of many TV talent contests and credited simply as Aydan) is a suitably cute, big-eyed, floppy haired boybander. But the show belongs to two scene-stealers, Chika Ikogwe as Jules, Edna’s often abrasive school friend, and James Majoos as Saltypringl, a fellow Harry fan convinced the band’s management is concealing their gay relationships and who consoles/colludes with Edna over the Internet. Not only do Ikogwe and Majoos deliver pitch-perfect comedy and vocals, they set the bar for where the show needs to be.
Fangirls is at its best when it takes the time to explore the lives of modern teens, tackling their insecurities and showing the complex motivations beneath their seemingly bizarre behavior. At times the show flirts with intriguing, subtle choices before going for the broad swing. Edna’s conversations with Saltypringl hint at darker themes (online manipulation, digital lack of empathy) that never quite coalesce.
While this particular style of boyband adoration is nothing new (feel free to insert The Beatles or The Monkees or The Backstreet Boys or Take That, etc.) focusing on a One Direction clone already starts feeling dated. We live in a BTS world for the moment.
You may have noticed that I’ve not mentioned the music. To be honest, I forgot all about the songs the second they finished – no future concert standards here. The musical mimicry is good enough to get you over the line, but hardly the soaring pop-pastiche of shows like Six. Many fail to advance the plot, merely tick the box of “insert musical number here”.
I left Fangirls entertained but wanting it to live up to its obvious potential. It teased me with more than it finally delivered. Were this a school report card, I’d give Fangirls a B+.
By Chad Armstrong
Fangirls plays at the Seymour Center till February 20th 2021. Find out more and purchase tickets from the Belvoir Theatre website.