Review: Speeding up the teen popularity contest

CAPTION Photograph: Richard Davenport
Chelsea (Laura Elsworthy), Lee (James Cooney) and Dionne (Tanya Vital) in The Only Way Is Chelsea's. Photograph: Richard Davenport
CAPTION Photograph: Richard Davenport

Review: The Only Way Is Chelsea’s
Venue: Theatre Royal, October 16

Fourteen year old Chelsea from Acomb needs to change her life. With a turbulent home life and few friends to speak of something has to give. In this day and age the solution is obvious.

She must make and star in her own reality TV drama – her home-made version of The Only Way Is Essex. That’s the clear route to happiness isn’t it?

Played convincingly by Laura Elsworthy, Chelsea shuts out all of her personal problems, becoming obsessed with maintaining her newly acquired popularity.
Whilst the play explores the effect on teenagers of these constructed reality TV shows (where the truth is an inconvenience), her experiences resonate with every generation.

Everyone can be transported back to starting a new school, landing at the bottom of the social ladder and having to hang out with a thick-rimmed glasses wearer named “Jam-Jar Jane”. The ecstasy when the cool kids ask you to “sit with them in maths”.

The play succeeds because it shows that whilst slang and styles might have changed, being a teenager remains essentially the same experience. Fraught with anxiety and obsession, a place where everyone seems to have a quantifiable value; this was apparent long before Facebook “likes” held such powers.

Instead we are shown how the internet speeds up a teenager’s popularity process. Chelsea, aided by her two friends, insecure Lee (James Cooney) and the dynamic Dionne (Tanya Vital), changes her fortunes overnight.

In a time before the internet this would have taken weeks of wearing and saying the “right thing”.

Writer Frazer Flintham draws the play even closer to the audience through its characters frequent references to “Chappies” (Chapelfields) and “Archies” (Archbishop Holgate School).

Frazer held workshops with pupils at schools including York High, and their impact on the play’s development is very apparent.

The swiftness at which popularity can be won and lost surely leads to more insecurity

Less successful at times is the slightly stilted teen banter and slang. The characters tended to emphasise and pause over terms such as “weeny” (a synonym for very) and “Facebook famous” – as if to highlight how authentically “down with the kids” the play is. Actual teens would use this language much more causally.

Yet the dynamics between the three leads are believable. They are sympathetic characters due to the genuine affection they have for each other, which rests under a façade of teenage bluster.

So the adolescent experience remains consistent, based heavily on ranking and judgement. It’s the ways and means of altering your status that have changed.

The swiftness at which popularity can be won and lost surely leads to more insecurity. This is made apparent by Chelsea’s manic behaviour once she has achieved her aims.

She’s desperate not to go back. Back to Jam-Jar Jane; back to being anonymous.

Maybe it’s the perceived horror of anonymity that has been crystallised by reality TV drama. We’ve always wanted love, but now we are able to substitute personal relationships for YouTube views and Twitter followers.

Chelsea’s experience tells us this doesn’t quite work, diminishing the legacy and importance of these programmes its characters find so significant.