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Theatre Review Play on fractious women's football team struggles for result

The Wolves
Theatre Royal Stratford East

THERE’S nothing quite like a rousing chorus of Beyonce’s Who Run The World? followed by the slogan to end all others, “Suck my tampon, bitches!” to announce — in case you missed it amid all the upspeak — that this a play about teenage girls navigating their way through the post-training-bra years.

In Sarah DeLappe's story of a high school indoor “soccer” team from Middle America making their way through the league and hoping to be scouted for college teams, the arguments are about tampon blood and the Khmer Rouge, with the conversations occasionally coalescing gruesomely — “It’s like a mass grave in my bathroom!”

Stretching in unison and gossiping in cliques, the dialogue is superbly handled by director Ellen McDougall’s brilliant cast, but as the play goes on, these archetypal characters buckle under the demands of the script and the narrative simply doesn’t cohere.

The long warm-up scenes are occasionally punctured by flashes of insight into the girls' fraught lives with an almost dismissive brevity. The nervous vomiting of one becomes a standing joke, while another is assaulted and ultimately dies — the list goes on — and the only self-assured character travels the world with her successful, career-driven mother.

She's a glimmer of hope for womankind until she too has a psychotic attack and dribbles off the pitch muttering feverish nonsense. This vast and sensitive territory is delivered rapid-fire, as if tipped from a box marked Bad Things that Happen to Girls. The characters have just seconds to impress upon us the horrific truths of their lives before they’re whisked out of the scene to make way for more stretching and bickering.

Fleshing out nine complex character arcs — 10 when “soccer mom” enters — in 90 minutes is a lot to ask and the idea that we’re left with is that the female story is only as interesting as its most formative traumatic experience, leaving me wondering whether they haven’t missed a trick here.

Praised for its authenticity in capturing the voice of young women today, if it's any kind of litmus test, The Wolves is nevertheless a fairly grim portrait of female relationships in the future. The banter, couched in determinedly machismo comic terms, may draw the laughs, but it’s not always clear who we’re laughing at.

What saves this show is its stellar cast of gutsy, intelligent and intuitive performers who work around the material admirably. Their dues come right at the end, when huddled together they whispering a chant that becomes the battle cry: “We are the Wolves!”

It's a moment when, at last, the characters show up for each other because they realise it’s the only way to play the game.

Runs until November 17, box office: stratfordeast.com

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