Remember being a teenager, when the most important thing in the world was what other people thought of you? Yep, me too. And so does Manda (Zöe Grain), the protagonist in Alexander Knott’s Hedgehog; she’s living it right now, and it’s not going so well. She’s just lost her job at the local vet – over a hedgehog, of all things – and her parents are in the slow and painful process of splitting up. Her “friends” seem barely to even tolerate let alone like her, and every time she meets a nice guy, she thinks he’s the one… until she finds out he definitely isn’t.
The problem is that it’s the 90s, she’s a teenager, and nobody’s told her that it’s okay to not be okay. So Manda puts on a smile and gets dressed up for a night out she knows she won’t enjoy, at a club she’s too young to legally be in, where she’ll down shot after shot in a futile attempt to smother her fear, loneliness and insecurity, and – even if just for a moment – to try and make sure that someone actually sees her.
Though Hedgehog is essentially a monologue and has the feel of a one-woman show, Manda is not in fact alone on stage. She’s joined throughout by “Them” (Lucy Annable and Emily Costello), who not only take on the role of all the people in Manda’s life, but also become the little whispering voices in her head that tell her she’s not good enough, not cool enough, not lovable enough. This brings Manda’s turmoil and desperate need for validation out of her head and gives it a physical manifestation that’s perfectly embodied by Lucy Annable and Emily Costello. The two of them are a constant, vibrant and versatile presence on stage, but without ever distracting from Zöe Grain’s brilliant central performance.
What makes the story of Hedgehog so sad, and at the same time such an absorbing 70 minutes of theatre, is that Manda seems great. She’s funny, caring and refreshingly down to earth, she really does look amazing in her pink prom dress, and she does an awesome Spice Girls dance routine. Grain engages fearlessly with the audience from the moment the play begins, and we like her from the off – which is why it’s so hard to watch her chasing the approval of her awful “best friend” Claire, her absent mum or her latest crush, just to make herself feel better.
Set to a soundtrack that incorporates 90s classics alongside original composition from Sam Heron and James Demaine, Hedgehog is a fast-paced and often unpredictable ride. Timelines get tangled, scenes switch in the blink of an eye, and the audience is not so much carried as dragged along with Manda as she reaches the point that will either break her or give her the fresh start she so desperately needs. The emotional climax of Georgia Richardson’s production is particularly powerful, a poignantly simple and unexpected moment of human connection that anyone who’s ever felt alone or helpless can’t fail to be moved by. Insightful, relatable and beautifully performed, this play is a must-see – and let’s hope, unlike the eponymous hedgehog, it has a long life ahead.
Hedgehog is at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 22nd June.