Cell block tango

Sajal Singh reviews Dublin Fringe Festival’s Girl in a Cell

Performed and produced solely by Niamh Ryan at the Smock Alley Theatre from September 10-13, Girl in a Cell is the story of Jenna, an immensely talented and gifted seventeen-year-old dancer. The Dublin Fringe Festival play begins when the infallible Jenna participates in the highly anticipated Dance on Heaven competition with her boyfriend Mathew, also a dancer, and ends up placing second. Disheartened by the outcome of the competition despite her relentless and sincere efforts to win, Ryan, with the help of director Niamh McGrath, takes us on a journey as she figures out how on earth she ended up from glory to dereliction. 

In this 75-minute-long rollercoaster of emotions, Jenna and her father desperately try to figure out the mystery of the unceasing physical pain in her bones and muscles before her upcoming regional competition, which is in two weeks. From one doctor to another, our protagonist eventually ends up in a healing facility called Camp Cure, where she discovers some hard truths about life. Among complete strangers, she escapes her monotonous life and forms some unexpected relationships.  

From the beginning of the play, Jenna makes the viewer her best friend. Like a typical teenage girl, she complains about the problems in her relationship with Mathew (mostly the fact that he’s just a little bit dumb) and craves the attention of every guy she finds attractive.

The play depicts Jenna as someone high schoolers and secondary school students can identify with while allowing its older audience to delve into their nostalgia. Surprisingly, when the cause of her illness is finally revealed, we realise that we, in fact, do not know Jenna at all. Ever since her mother died, Jenna has suffered both physical and emotional pain for she blames herself for her mother’s death. The suspense is nicely built and the writing helps us feel one with Jenna and her pain. 

The loss of a parent and processing of grief is a challenging and slow journey that sometimes requires intervention. Girl in a Cell recognises the need for therapy and acknowledges the common phenomenon of somatization. The prominence of this play, however, lies in the peripheral theme of hope. Jenna’s persevering attitude to get better and back to dance despite her lack of recuperation, keeps us hooked. We are rooting for Jenna as she bears the pain to achieve her dream. 

Although the play started to feel monologue-heavy after a point, it had rhythm accompanied by peculiar sound effects that added to the vigour of emotions. The minimal set, with doodles all over, served as an accurate representation of the Gen-Z vibe and teenage turmoil that Jenna was brimming with.

“As a solo performer, it is evident Ryan has put her heart and soul into this special production. In fact, for me, she will always be Jenna”

The award-winning actress Ryan has offered a true visual feast for the audience. I will admit that the play did make me shed a tear or two, but the best part was breaking into an occasional laugh with the packed Smock Alley Theatre at Jenna’s silly tactics. As a solo performer, it is evident Ryan has put her heart and soul into this special production. In fact, for me, she will always be Jenna.