Over the past few years, the Royal Court’s upstairs Jerwood studio space has cast itself as a laboratory for pretty much exclusively female-orientated new work. Some of it has been wincingly self righteous (Ellie Kendrick’s Hole, and A History of Water in the Middle East spring to mind); some of it stingingly fresh: Superhoe; Seven Ways of Killing Kylie Jenner.
Miriam Battye’s debut play fits into the latter category, and if its provisional-sounding title suggests that it’s something of a work in progress, it also suggests that the play’s subject – how millennial women negotiate relationships with men and each other – remains a work in progress too.
It begins as a conventional flat-share drama. Lou and Tosh, both twenty-something friends from school, live together in the sort of easy, affectionate companionship that suggests they can tell each other everything – except that, on listening closer, you realise that they only ever talk about sex and men.
Lou drops eye-popping descriptions of her many sexual encounters, while the resolutely single Tosh (Sex Education’s Tanya Reynolds) relays her violent dreams about sex, and is occasionally irritated that so much of Lou’s chat involves “c--k”.
Both hyper-literate, they often use the same words at the same time or finish each other’s sentences. Both, in a neat dollop of irony from Battye, also consider themselves “post boy”, determined to set outside the social “narrative” that insists women need to be needed. Lou is trying to absent herself during sex in order to convince herself that what is happening is not happening to her; Tosh wants nothing to do with men at all.
What could descend into militant, wokey gobbledegook is served by Battye with a scathingly funny light touch. The cut-and-thrust dialogue – a mix of text speak, millennial languor and an almost shocking sexual detachment (at one point, Lou talks about herself as “open for entry”) combines with a jagged, rhythmic awkwardness that suggests deeper anxiety lurks beneath the confidence.
And when the girls’ old friend Fran visits, to relay news of her engagement, the toxic potential of Lou and Tosh’s friendship becomes clear: its claustrophobic co-dependency, its posh girls’ school-style capacity for cruelty (both savagely mock Fran’s so-called submissive conventionality); the gnawing realisation their own, not quite sexual intimacy isn’t proving an adequate alternative.
Lucy Morrison’s sleek production – played out on a cool blue swimming-pool style set, casually strewn with phones, laptops and water bottles and with a toilet and sink at one end – is quite superbly acted. Reynolds has already proved her own in sexually gauche misfits and, although she plays with her hair here a mite too often, her ability to suggest deep mines of feeling in tiny, tremulous gestures is mesmerising.
Rebekah Murrell is an effortless mix of sexual bravado and emotional bluntness, while Letty Thomas’s perfectly judged Fran is nervously aware she is always the butt of the joke. Battye purposefully leaves gaps in our knowledge of Lou and Tosh, yet there remains the indelible impression that across her 22 scruffy, snappy scenes there is a bigger, deeper play bursting to get out. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Until Feb 22. Tickets: 020 7565 5000; royalcourttheatre.com