[The following contains spoilers.]
Harry Styles must hold the same place in the world of serious Fringe theatre as a slug in a Caesar salad. He is one of the most famous pop stars on the planet and it is possible that I might have indeed heard of him. I wouldn’t know who he was if our trolleys crashed into each other in Tesco, but songs by his band, One Direction, do rotate on the staff iPod at my work. There is a lyric from one of these numbers, “Steal My Girl,” that has always particularly upset me:
Everybody wanna steal my girl
Everybody wanna take her heart away
Couple billion in the whole wide world
Find another one ’cause she belongs to me.
“Who is this guy?,” I sometimes rage to younger co-workers who presumably know. “You can’t say that a girl ‘belongs’ to you – you just can’t talk about women like that!”
In Poor Michelle’s “Harry,” which is currently running at the Underbelly, I finally meet this girl who belongs to Harry. Caitlin McEwan and Sophie McQuillan play Caitlin and Sophie, two student roommates who become deeply dippy about the popinjay. The girls stalk Harry on the internet, which is fun, and then in real life, which is as grim as it sounds. They check into the most expensive hotel within reach of a One Direction concert and sit in the bar waiting for Harry to appear. Sophie peels away in the end, but Caitlin has gone too far to come back.
Caitlin “belongs” to Harry rather as witches had once belonged to the Black Man. Behind all of this play’s woe is the merry idea that it is providing a public health warning. Caitlin’s story could be inset into a police publicity campaign – it has the same haunted despair as a testimonial by a drink-driver who has run over several children. This is what Harry did to me and can do to you – just say no!
McEwan, who authors the script as well, has a lot of complicated calculations to get right in pulling off Caitlin’s character. Nonetheless, you are left feeling that she has done so by a wide margin. Caitlin is charming and eloquent enough for you to identify with her, but her pasty-faced inadequacy is also startlingly lifelike. Soon she looks sick down to her soul. I didn’t quite feel sorry for her – it is hard to commiserate with an art-history student who devotes ninety per cent of her time to One Direction and ten to the Pre-Raphaelites. This is philistinism on the magnitude of the so-called Islamic State.
What does this play mean? It is not a tragedy – Caitlin has a bit of a breakdown, and she is dealt a few of life’s knocks, but she is hardly written off. The ultimate value of “Harry” lies in its realistic portrait of a student who is not a glittering success (like Sophie) or a relaxed failure (like Caitlin’s boyfriend Jamie), but who has dropped into the now-vast no-man’s-land in between. If these young people are left with nothing then Harry, or something even worse, will steal them away.