A poisonous concoction of body image, self-perception and warped modern ideals of beauty bubbles threateningly in the latest work from Bram Davidovich, Strawberry Starburst. Taking a swipe at the continually propagated idea that being thin is the same as being healthy, this play shows the truly damaging, and often irreversible result of how we compare appearance with self-worth. With the current, albeit gradual, shift towards body confidence and celebrating both healthy minds and healthy figures, this play is perfectly positioned to flush out the remaining disciples of ‘thin is in’ and implores us to seriously consider the mental illness of anorexia.
Tiptoeing across the minefield of adolescence, we follow Shez, a fairly happy thirteen-year-old. Her weekends are spent with her parents, exploring the country in their little red car while she crams whole packets of Starburst into her mouth. She has a boyfriend, Jake, and things are generally going well. That is until her father stops working which leads to the breakdown of her parents’ marriage, and seeing less and less of him, Shez withdraws to her bedroom seeking solace in her sweets. A few years later, at her mother’s insistence, she begins exercising and quickly sheds the pounds which solicits a powerful, but fleeting, surge of approval from Jake. Desperate to control her life, she increases her physical activity and denies herself meals in order to keep him interested.
Strawberry Starburst is a beautiful piece of physical theatre, expertly written by Davidovich. The pressures faced by all teenage girls (and indeed all women) to fit a certain aesthetic is not a new concept to any of us. However, by closely detailing the individual transformation from carefree girl to self-destructive woman we are able to connect on a personal level but are ultimately left to watch helplessly. Davidovich cleverly infuses the conversational monologue with moving poetry, heightening the emotional connection between the audience and Shez and drawing us in to share in her torment. The simplicity of her thoughts and concerns makes them instantly recognisable to all, revolving solely around family and relationships. Maryam Grace, single-handedly spurring the story forward as Shez, is utterly enchanting. Her bright, open expressions gradually become clipped and unsure as the plot progresses and her frenzied, focused exercises make us flinch with concern for her already nimble frame. Grace’s depiction of childish insecurity is truly heart-breaking. She moves among the audience throughout the show to confide in us but shrinks against the back wall as the play progresses, distancing herself from our camaraderie and we find ourselves leaning forward to comfort her. The last few scenes are in fact quite difficult to watch. We see a girl whose life has been so damaged by this illness that the very thought of eating leaves her retching, with tears streaming down her face.
Leaving the theatre, it becomes painstakingly apparent that this same story is being repeated across the world with young people, both male and female, shaping their entire lives around body image. While the subject matter is of course sombre, Strawberry Starburst does not chastise the modern world and includes brief pops of humour to make Shez’s character both believable and likeable. A shining performance from Grace and Davidovich’s harrowing script deserve to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
Reviewed by Alex Foott
Photo: Lars Thornhill
Strawberry Starburst plays at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 28 May 2016