Padded bras in Primark for seven-year olds.
The V&A telling a woman to cover up her breasts while feeding her baby.
An article calling four-year old Prince George a gay icon.
Children getting STDs.
An eight year old girl travelling to Brazil for breast enlargement surgery.
Those first four examples have all been recent news-stories; only the latter is fictional and forms the basis for Monica Dolan’s fascinating new one woman play about the sexualisation of children.
John Hoggarth’s paired down direction allows the story to unfold slowly as Dolan’s character, Tessa, is gradually revealed along with the plot. Surely one of the most in demand TV actors of the moment, it was a pleasure to watch Dolan (W1A, Appropriate Adult, Witness For the Prosecution) at the height of her game, captivating the audience throughout in a marathon performance of this hour-long monologue.
Tessa recounts the case of a child, who she calls Lila, and her mother, whom she dubs Karen, surrounded by the slight hints of her psychotherapist office. Lila was sexually mature from a young age, but what little girl doesn’t idealise the big girls she sees around her? The extent of this early sexualisation is unnerving however. At three she picked up magazines with glamour models in swimsuits, a few years later she took her underpants off in front of a grown man and at seven she was forcing her mother to buy her padded bras.
At eight Lila forces Karen to take her to Brazil for breast enlargement surgery. It was a compromise, although we never learn what the other option was.
Dolan’s script is designed to shock, but as she drops in references to sexualisation in our society, Lila’s breast enlargement at eight starts to seem like an inevitable conclusion. Dolan’s detached characterisation skilfully allows her to analyse the way women’s bodies are viewed in the media, online and in the real world.
Dolan dances between two of our societal obsessions; the antiquated idea of the innocent child and the conflicting fixation with sexualisation. She grapples with big questions, like if a child’s prepubescent overt sexuality can ever be natural. And if nurture is to blame, is it society’s responsibility or the mother’s? She asks if a woman’s breast can ever truly be her own when they are sexualised so much. And finally, when people look for a reason for sexual abuse, that can only be a step away from finding an excuse.
This troubling play asks rarely raised questions about sexualisation, parenting and if society as whole has any sort of moral duty. Dolan is an absolute match for the challenging material which left the audience shell-shocked and pensive.
Her extraordinary performance is a highlight of the fringe and I hope that this vital piece will have a life after August, perhaps in another BAFTA winning television turn for the remarkable lead.