Chewing Gum Dreams review: An effervescent look at adolescence

National Theatre, London
Michaela Coel's firecracker of a monologue is an exploration of friendship, sex, race and faltering self-belief

In a famous scene from Lena Dunham's TV show Girls, a female gynaecologist declares: "You could not pay me enough to be 24 again." Michaela Coel's firecracker of a monologue makes me feel like that about adolescence. Tracey Gordon is 14, thrumming with hormones and swollen with the thoughtlessness of youth. A favoured term of endearment for her beloved friend Candice is "fuck you, bitch"; on the morning bus to school she whiles away the time needling her cousin until she cries. On paper, Tracey sounds objectionable, but in Coel's effervescent, good-humoured performance she is simply a kid – playful, hungry for experience, bored and getting by.

Her talent for mocking those around her – from Candice's abusive boyfriend to Fat Lesha, a teen entrepreneur who sells condoms and bagels from a bin liner – gives the impression that Tracey thinks she can say and do anything she wants. To an extent, she can, but only because nothing she says or does really matters. She's poor, black and perfectly aware of her place in the world: at the back of the class, at the bottom of the pile.

In a scene of quiet lyricism, Tracey's (white) boyfriend tells her to aim higher than the cracks in the floor, but she shrugs: why bother? Often it's through silent gestures, the wide-eyed amazement that anyone should admire her and the shivers of alarm at any expectation of her, that Coel communicates most about Tracey's lack of self-belief.

Similarly unstated is a furious indictment of a society, and particularly an education system, that denies Tracey every opportunity. That Coel has succeeded in bringing her, with all her struggle to pronounce the word articulacy, to a stage at the National Theatre, seems like a triumph – but far from enough.

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Maddy Costa

The GuardianTramp

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