Set in a British women’s prison, Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus’ now-thirteen-year-old musical adaptation of their own ITV series returns to York, this time storming the stage at John Cooper Studio on Monkgate, presented with jubilation by local amateur production company NE Musicals.
Cue an anarchic melee of scenes cherry-picking dramatic moments from the lives of an array of likely lasses. The story itself is a messy missionary with its sights set on highlighting the tragic and the ridiculous within our penal system. There are moments that pack an underdog punch, but overall the scenes are somewhat disjointed and distracted from one another, heightened unfortunately by continuous aimless wandering by the cast who aren’t in action – no doubt a gesture towards an immersive impression of the setting, as are the guard-playing front of house members and stage hands.
True to the original, the show is queer as folk, which is played – unusually, for this city, and thankfully – with great heart and sensitivity especially by performers Fiona Jean Baistow (Shell Dockley) and Maia Stroud (Denny Blood) in their intimate, flammable friendship, though with contrasting uncomfortable hesitation by Susan Blenkiron (Helen Stewart) in her rather more off-stage romance with prisoner Nikki Wade (played with great tenderness by Perri Ann Barley). Kit Stroud’s achingly gentle, emotionally invested portrayal of Justin gives the prisoners’ stories the space they deserve.
Highlights include Bethany Warboys’ (Crystal Gordon) rousing rendition of Freedom Road in front of a glittering angel choir, Baistow’s perfectly perilous First Lady and Steve Tearle’s (Jim Fenner) appropriately disturbing The Key. Emma Louise Dickerson’s Yvonne Atkins is also stunning in her poise and vocals, from her oil-slick first entrance through her Copacabana-esque A-List to a seductive All Banged Up. Rizzo would be proud.
The actors are somewhat under-served by the choreography, which is playful and creative in places but dwells too long for the energy of a musical, leaving some sections feeling staid – the mop-sturbation in Clare Meadley and Pat Mortimer’s (the Julies) Life of Grime is obvious once, and tedious ever-after, as are Fenner’s extended audience farewells following The Future Is Bright. Some meandering movement of wheeled-on set pieces is clearly unplanned, making you tense for the wrong reasons, while the inexplicable miming of keys locking and unlocking doors despite both items being tangibly visible baffles away other concerns.
The otherwise successful creation of a claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere enhanced by the original projections used in scene transitions loses its impact slightly when confined to a flat fabric screen rather than imposed over the existing structural depths of the stage, as in previous versions. Accents, articulation and volume are of very mixed levels, making a big portion of the dialogue and lyrics impossible to follow.
One powerful thread follows new arrival Rachel Hicks’ (Ellie Roberts) inevitable journey to her shocking suicide following misogynist abuse from men and women alike over her first twenty-four hours in the stifling Larkhall. Sadly the potency of her rape by Fenner, and the discovery of her death, are not delivered with grace and rely heavily upon the wide-ranging reactions of the ensemble cast to carry the moment.
What the show lacks in specificity, it makes up for in ambition and commitment, and it truly does serve up a gritty mess hall dinner of tragedy, frustration, humour, empowerment and hope.
Bad Girls The Musical played at John Cooper Studio @ 41 Monkgate on the 16th July 2019. Read more about the company and their upcoming shows here.