Daisy Pulls It Off – Genesian Theatre remembers Angela Brazil. (Theatre Review)

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It’s easy to forget, all these (feminist) years later how important to girls and to literature in general Angela Brazil was. Denise Deegan, a play write in her sixties (today) would have been conscious of the impending death of the british school girl books as a genre, and surely this influences her decision to write the delightful Daisy Pulls It Off in the early 1980’s. I don’t know if girls (or boys) read Angela Brazil today; I didn’t, but I did read Enid Blyton’s Naughtiest Girl Books, old dusty versions that belonged to my mother, and were direct incarnations of the Brazil books. But until Angela Brazil, girls didn’t have books about girls at school, mostly because girls were home schooled, and because the books were considered unnecessary. Brazil published her first book in 1904, and in the period between 1900 and 1920 the number of girls in grammar school increased from 20,000 to 180,000 in the UK.

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Much of the literature at this time for girls centred around modesty and religious purity.  Brazil’s books were subversive and shocking as they included young cheeky girls who openly challenged authority, instigated “pranks”, were energetic and healthy. The books centred on the concerns of the youthful females and their challenges, sidelining adults, often including girls solving their own problems together and most shocking of all, they seemed to be written for entertainment and had little instruction on moral principles. As late as in the 1930’s, Brazil’s books were being burned in some schools, banned in many and seen as a corrupting force on young female minds. She of course, has rarely been recognised as a great writer, let alone a subversive dangerous writer, and yet the longevity of her work surely speaks something of the power of her words, not to mention her unashamed challenge to conventional society.

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It is impossible for me to imagine that some if not all of this was on Deegan’s mind when she decided to further immortalize Brazil through the character Daisy Meredith in Daisy Pulls It Off. The play is a cheeky, clever roast of the Brazil books, including admiration for their dated modesty and recognition of their longevity. It’s a nice idea to remind us of these books, even if it is quite a large leap from “The Princess of the School” to the “Harry Potter” series and Rowling herself owes a debt of gratitude to Brazil. In fact, the Brazil books are written for fifteen year old girls, so these days they battle it out on the shelf with the likes of Twilight and The Hunger Games, a battle I fear they would lose.

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Daisy Pulls It Off includes all the trademark Brazil tropes; the admired strapping captain of the hockey team, the poor scholarship girl, the rich arch-enemy who is also pretty, midnight feasts, imagined hauntings, school room pranks, the loyal devoted quirky friend, setups, lies, clifftop houses, secret languages and self-created behavioural codes. More than this however, what Daisy Pulls It Off includes, is a self parody that serves to remind us of Brazil and allows for a high spirit of energy and girlish giggles.  Actors frequently step out of the action to narrate portions of the “book” to the audience, and props are moved, changed and arranged with dance like movements by the cast, adding a dreamy aspect that highlights the importance of the Brazil books in teasing the imagination. Most of all, however, Deegan’s work is very funny, cleverly self-referntial and as the title suggests adding the very slightest hint of innuendo or double entendre that never transgressed to the point of cheeky. This sleight of hand approach to the writing adds to the innocence of the text and the girls rather than contributing a shady nuance that would have been impossible for an audience to deal with.

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Despite its fun and frivolity, Deegan has not written a simple play.  Its wordy, head hopping, and the wit precision timed. It takes a strong cast and an excellent director to weave the golden threads properly so they are not lost or forgotten and director Mark Langham has done a fine job directing an excellent cast that brings out the very best in the play. The entire cast works well, with standouts being Anna Hitchens as the heroine Daisy and Amylea Griffin as her boisterous loyal friend Trixie. Typically adults play the girls, but Amylea inhabits the spirit of the youthful English schoolgirl perfectly, while Hitchens is the wise-beyond-her-years, over-achieving Daisy, the girl all readers wanted to be. Everyone else is excellent with a shout out to Anita Donovan as Clare Beaumont. Donovan’s character is one of those lovely moments when casting director and actor are in perfect synch, as she uses her physical appearance to great effect in portraying the dynamic captain of the hockey team, while exhibiting a potent charisma that embodies those untouchable females that every young girl looked up to in school. This is part of what makes Langham’s production so good – his actors don’t just perform a wonderful play well, they understand the spirit of what they are doing, so that far more is captured than simply a performance.

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Ultimately Daisy Pulls it Off is an homage play to a wonderful writer who should not be forgotten. And in the hands of the talented Genesian theater company, it will live strong for a while longer at least.

I highly recommend Daisy Pulls It Off. Its one of the best productions I’ve seen this year. Grab your tickets here.  You have until 16 November.

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