Review: Harajuku Girls, Finborough Theatre

yumi2Friday night I saw Harajuku Girls, no not Gwen Stefani’s entourage, but Francis Turnly’s new play at Finborough Theatre.

Set in Tokyo, the production focuses on the lives of three friends; Keiko (Elizabeth Tan – Waterloo Road and Coronation Street), Mari (Haruka Abe– Cucumber and Clean Bandits music video) and Yumi (Kunjue Li – Ripper Street), passionate about cosplay and Lolita fashion, the trio will often dress up and go to the Jingu bridge in Harajuku, posing for pictures in hopes to appear in Fruits magazine. However don’t be fooled, this is not the cutesy, happy go lucky play you might expect. With the first scene full of swearing and sexual references, it is just the start of things to come in this exploration of the darker side of modern Japanese society.

HarajukuGirlsProduction-44Having just graduated high school and awaiting their results the girls must start thinking of their future. This leads the materialistic and mischievous Keiko dragging her best friend Mari, conflicted and desperate for cash as her father refuses to pay her tuition fee for acting school, into the dark world of image clubs in Kabukicho. Naturally, what first starts as a job involving their favourite hobby of dressing up and role play soon spirals out of their control.

The play successfully adds humour and naivety to dark themes; desire, fantasy, prostitution and even drug addiction. Introducing the concept of Japan’s panty shops, love hotels and image clubs to a western audience. Although some may see this as a fairly predictable plot line it features some dramatic twists leaving the audience guessing what is reality, and what is merely fantasy.

Mari familyHowever, it is not all sex, drugs and J-rock. There are several scenes of Mari with her family as she desperately tries to make them understand her dream of becoming an actress and search for independence. These family scenes contrast to those set in Kabukicho, focusing on the strict, rigid traditional values that many Japanese families hold.

At the intimate theatre, seating just 50 people the production utilises the space well with multiple scene changes from family home to night club. Although occasionally these take a while to move the production has a stellar soundtrack provided by Helen Skiera playing popular Japanese artists such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Baby Metal. The unique sliding doors inparticular were extremely effective, allowing the audience to see multiple scenes and even live costume changes (fan service!)

harajuku girls 1Elizabeth Tan stands out in her stunning performance as Keiko, the mischievous yet ultimately self-destructive eighteen year old. Haruka Abe portrays the naïve, conflicted Mari effectively, as Keiko herself puts “not many girls can do innocent”. Kunjue Li is the definition of moe, providing comic relief in a dark script.

Self-confessed otakus will count the references and laugh aloud at the jokes. Recommended, a must see for fans of Japanese culture.

Showing until the 21 March with matinee and evening performances.

Buy your tickets here.

Watch my interviews below with the leading ladies: