Union Theatre, London
Music and lyrics by Kath Gotts
Book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus
Directed by Will Keith
Ten years after it opened (and swiftly closed) in the West End, there’s a fringe revival of this tuneful take on life in a women's prison. Drawn from Bad Girls, their popular TV series, Chadwick and McManus took the programme's characters and location and fashioned them into a full blown musical. That it only lasted two months is not surprising - the plot lines are predictable and the characters are, for the most part, clichéd caricatures.
So yes - for a multi-million pound production with West End expectations, Bad Girls was possibly always destined to struggle.
However....strip the show down to a micro-budget, stage it in the Union's intimate yet versatile cockpit and shower it with some of the strongest performing talent around - and this curious composition evolves into an evening of sometimes electrifying song and dance.
Bad Girls’ narrative duly trots out the tropes. Though with an abusive screw who can't keep it in his trousers; a principled senior prison officer out to right a flawed and corrupted system; some good cons, some bad; and jealousies, drugs, a suicide and a smouldering lesbian love between officer and prisoner (natch), there's never a dull (nor, to be honest, an unexpected) moment.
Will Keith uses the traverse space well, and with Jess Phillips' ingenious design - the simple use of meshing around the band and across the ceiling suggesting the landings between the cells - the venue's own rustic charm transforms convincingly into a prison interior - and let’s be honest, rarely have the Union's gruesome Victorian lavatories created such an effective mise-en-scene!
There are too many back stories to describe in this review - so focusing instead upon the talent, Ceili O'Connor's Nikki offers a well-crafted glimpse of a principled murderer. She’s not been given the wit that Kander and Ebb bestowed on Chicago’s Roxie Hart, but nonetheless O'Connor charms throughout, with magnificent voice and presence, notably in numbers Every Night and This Is My Life. She show’s some classy hoofing too in the ensemble numbers.
The "villains" of the show are the bent warders Jim and Sylvia (Gareth Davies and Maggie Robson respectively). Theirs is a strangely Vaudevillian partnership, which for all its incongruity is brilliantly choreographed here by Jo McShane and then fabulously executed by the duo, together with their supporting ensemble. There's humour in both Jailcraft and The Future is Bright, the latter comprising a sensational chorus line, Rockettes style, the intricacy of which shows just how much imagninative and exciting dance can be achieved in such a tiny space. Davies puts in a fine performance as a perverted rapist, but (SPOILER ALERT) that he ends the show in handcuffs is just too much of a pantomime happy ending. History tells us that powerful abusers rarely get brought to justice, going on to exploit their position for years. This perhaps is the show's greatest structural flaw.
|Gareth Davies and Maggie Robson|
Sarah Goggin as the young, vulnerable teenage mother Rachel who’s only just been sent down, offers up a performance of perfectly measured pain. Sensibly, her role is barely offered a singing number, for what she has to endure is beyond the happy parameters of a showtune. It’s all down to Goggin's acting and she smashes it, subtly breaking our hearts with her response to the (off-stage) abuse she suffers.
As the drug-dealers at the top of the prisoners' food chain, Sinead Long's Shell and her sidekick Denny (Imelda Warren-Green) make fine work of characters which, to be fair, are fleshed out with decent credibility. Their youthful menace reminds one of Alan Clarke's seminal 1977 movie Scum, and their Guardian Angel number, early on in the show is a strong piece.
|Sinead Long, Imelda Warren-Green and Sarah Goggins|
The two older banged up brasses, Julie Saunders and Julie Johnston are tarts with hearts who've seen it all. Jayne Ashley and Catherine Digges are on top form throughout, and if Ashley's (sincerely tear-stained) number Sorry didn't quite tug at heartstrings as much as the writers might have wished, the Julies' contribution to All Banged Up (think Loose Women, desperate for sex, but in the style of Bob Fosse) offered a further moment of hilarious excellence - again with a nod to McShane's dance work.
As gangster's missus Yvonne, all fur coat and killer heels, Christine Holman is a treat. Holman offers another example of an outstanding performance, as she makes up for a thinly fleshed out character, with stunning voice and movement.
Elsewhere Livy Evans' god-fearing Crystal kicks off the second half with the sweetest a-capella opener to Freedom Road. As Helen, the compassionate prison officer hiding a love that can't be spoken, Tori Hargreaves manages a tough gig well. Her character is little more than a two-dimensional cliché – but she shines in her love duets.
Further praise is due to the show’s creatives. Adam Braham has cast the show with perception and Jack Weir's lighting is outstanding. In the absence of physical scenic changes it is down to the lighting plots to suggest time and place and it is rare that an off West End show is found to offer such distinctive clarity. Similarly Alex Bellamy coaxes fine work from his three piece band.
Above all - salutations to producer Sasha Regan who works tirelessly to generate this theatre's prodigious output. Shortly to move down the road, the current space's iron girders and collapsing seats will be affectionately missed. Right now however, the sassy, classy production values of Bad Girls define the Union's remarkable contribution to London’s theatre scene.
Runs until 2nd April
Photo credit: Darren Bell