'You used to be such a nice girl, and now you're just a brute!' That's what the 14-year-old Poppy, played by Izzy Tennyson, is told by her mother. A play about the pains of adolescence, challenges of immigration, and teenage bullying, Brute is a touching portrayal. It brings back the angst and despair that only a teenager in high school can feel – and does it with remarkable ferocity.
Written as well as performed by Tennyson, this is the story of a year of Poppy's life as she's moved from Spain to England, and from a co-ed to an all-girls' school. She has always got on better with boys, and now finds it a struggle to understand the girls in her class – the tampon thrower, the anger artist, and the pretty one. The stage is bare except for a school chair and table; Poppy wears her school uniform and carries a backpack. Minimalism is more here, because even with this bare-boned setup, Tennyson delivers a fabulous performance: full of angst, ridden with acne, awkward and unsure.
As Poppy continues to struggle with her self-esteem, other characters are brought to life through her words. Almost all the girls have issues; one's anorexic, another one is suicidal, yet another is too promiscuous. Each of the girls is part of a pack but is isolated psychologically. And the teachers, as teachers frequently do, treat them all the same.
The 70-minute performance culminates in a violent breakdown, some therapy, and more bullying. And although there is no true resolution, there is the faith that the wounds inflicted will heal with time. My only major issue with the play is that it seems to follow a pattern – good day, bad day, terrible day, catharsis – which repeats itself in a loop about thrice. Maybe that was the goal of the script, but the predictability nevertheless disappointed me a little.
Having changed from a co-ed to an all-girls school myself at the very awkward age of 12, I identified strongly with Poppy. There is little more painful than being the 'new girl' in a class where friendships are already formed, and opinions and labels already decided. Children can be cruel – and at an age where most are already struggling with hormones and the threshold of adulthood, there is little comfort in sticking out, 'especially if you're fat or clever'.
So this show brings some powerful issues to light. It shows how dark teenage depression truly can be, and how devastating the long-term consequences are. My own high-school life was miserable – but even if yours wasn't, you'll still be on Poppy's side. She's just that vulnerable, and Tennyson's just that good.