In this journey through the past, a shining Denise van Outen plays Stephanie Canworth, a married businesswoman confronting the past when a previous love gets in touch.
Reflecting the memories, eighties and nineties music provides plenty of song, and van Outen’s strong vocals are often where she shows most emotional connection. Lack of accent in the singing is in stark contrast to Stephanie’s normal speech, but serves the clarity of the songs. These have lost a lot of their original sound and character, apparently to give them a more ‘classic style’ (as explained by arranger Steve Anderson) but fit the action of the play. Van Outen’s delivery of Stephanie’s lines for the first half, particularly, is less connected, being on a similar surface level throughout, and the convention of speaking to the audience works best when she really plays with people, rather than simply speaks at the void in front of her.
The writing, by Terry Ronald and van Outen herself, while including many recognisable aspects of relationships, lacks layers and is rather obvious: it tells you exactly what is going on rather than allowing you to build your own picture through subtle clues, and a secret that unfolds in the second half – though well played then – was pretty obvious in the first part. However, the second half improves greatly, touching on deeper aspects of what being an ‘independent’ woman might mean, living a whole life and one deliberately chosen with a clear understanding, rather than governed by the past. Here van Outen gains far more depth and connection, leading to stronger credibility. It is not that she was unbelievable as a sassy but stressed Essex girl made good – how could she be? – but that there was a lack of variation and depth in the first half that is especially questionable once we know her story.
The other characters in Stephanie’s life are clearly depicted by van Outen, both vocally and physically, though the choice of where their focus is placed can feel unnatural. Otherwise, direction – and design – puts a raised dais for the bed to good use and the black and white hotel room includes details such as twin bath robes, highlighting relationship questions, and furniture utilised differently in scenes from the past. A huge mobile hanging above the entire stage area reflects youthful times and includes lighting that cleverly supports the shifting scenes of memory, which are also aided by various soundscapes.
Highlights of the show include Stephanie’s sassiness – apt, bawdy and well-phrased one-liners – and the emotional climax of the second half, along with van Outen’s impressive singing, which is clear, uncluttered, powerful, physically engaged and a great pleasure to hear.
Some Girl I Used to Know could use more layering, originality and subtlety in the writing and performance, but it is a solid show, which entertains and eventually moves, including moving a few members of the audience to their feet for the final applause.
Some Girl I Used To Know runs at the King’s Theatre until 12 March