The Western Studio stage of the Bristol Old Vic is almost bare. In the middle sits a bright pink blow up arm chair and on the opposite corners in front of it, a can of Charlie Red body spray and an old Motorola flip phone. These are the vital components of Kirsty’s bedroom, the teenage persona at the centre of Maria Ferguson’s one-woman show, Essex Girl.
Friendly and inviting, she commands the space of the intimate setting, opening the show with a punchy poem about her home town in Essex.
Bristol24/7 relies on your support to fund our independent journalism and social impact projects. Become a member and enjoy exclusive perks from just £5 per month.
“I come from a place of sticky dance floors,” she tells us, playing on the audience’s own pre-conceived ideas about the county. Stereotypes gleaned from watching The Only Way is Essex, which we are all guilty of assuming.
Pulling her hair into a messy bun, and donning simple grey hoodie, Maria is transformed into Kirsty. She shows her props off to the audience with all the pride of a 16-year-old inviting us into her world. Peppered with brand names: GHD straighteners, WKD, Jack and Coke, Charlie Red, it’s a world lived through acronyms and abbreviations and makes you immediately nostalgic for the mid ‘00s.
The character of Kirsty is also instantly relatable. We laugh at her teenage naivety, reminded of our own at that age. And yet there’s a darker undertone here that is only highlighted further by the comedy.
Kirsty takes us through her nights out in Brentwood, she and her friends hanging out with a group of older lads, as they use their underage sexual appeal to get into clubs and to parties. Kirsty is optimistic and excited, trying to be older and younger and her own age all at the same time. We follow her journey through friendships and rivalries, hopes and heartbreaks, highs and disappointments.
This is a familiar story, hilariously told and broken up by surprising but beautiful moments. In one such hauntingly lovely moment, she tells us of her love of choir and sings ‘Ave Maria’ in Latin. Or Kirsty pulling the audience into singing the West Ham football chant along with her. We are kept on our toes without fear of excessive participation and there is something fresh added to a narrative that we’ve heard before.
However, there’s an uneasiness to our laughter. Revisiting the teenage experience through adult eyes, you see how vulnerable Kirsty and her friends really are, and find yourself re-evaluating your own teen years.
The attitudes and control the men and boys exert over Kirsty and her friends is chilling to witness. From small instances, where the girls are repeatedly told, “Girls don’t drink whisky,” or are complimented as “Good girls” for downing drinks, to the darker secret at the heart of Kirsty’s story.
We hold our breath as Kirsty reasons away what she’s witnessed. Explains to herself why she can’t tell anyone, why it would cause more trouble than it would solve. She chugs a bottle of WKD, here still managing to make us laugh and break our hearts at the same time.
Ferguson makes us examine our own reactions and prejudices to certain places in the UK. She describes the change in attitude a stranger will have once discovering she’s from Essex:
“If there was one thing they could understand, it was that we were from Essex, and that meant they could touch us.”
The play ends with an echo of the opening poem, but this time centres on the harm that such stereotypes can have on the people who live there, especially young women.
The powerful lines resonate around the room: “I come from a need for progress.”
Read more: Best of Bristol 2019, Books and Spoken Word