14 years ago, Carey Mulligan made her professional debut at London’s Royal Court Theatre at the age of 19. Since then she’s bagged a Bafta, conquered Hollywood and become one of Britain’s most feted film stars, and she’s currently proving equally magnetic on the small screen in BBC2’s Collateral.
So Mulligan could afford to rest on her laurels, but instead she’s returned to the Royal Court to perform a new one-woman play by Dennis Kelly, the man behind Matilda the Musical and Channel 4’s cult thriller Utopia.
She plays a woman who falls for a “thick-brained, lard-synapsed c**k-head” in an Easyjet queue, recounting their passionate love affair and how her life falls neatly into place: she embarks on a successful career in documentary-making, she’s gets pregnant.
Her breezy narrative is interrupted by scenes in which she chastises her invisible young children. Is she imagining them or is it a theatrical device? Either way, something is clearly amiss.
Kelly keeps the audience guessing while his heroine elucidates the central theme: violence and how it stalks society’s ragged edges. “I think a lot about violence,” she says early on. “I just think it’s such a fundamental part of our species that how can you understand us without understanding it.”
Mulligan has the audience in the palm of her hand from the get-go, her trademark half-smile playing on her lips. She makes the most of Kelly’s hilariously vulgar and visual script, gleefully impersonating her husband and her straight-talking boss. Kelly lays on the working-class swagger a bit thick, but Mulligan manages to imbue her character with authenticity.
90 minutes is a long time for a one-person play with no interval, but Mulligan is more than equal to the challenge. She’s utterly devastating.
Girls & Boys is at the Royal Court until 17 March