I appreciate one shouldn’t judge books by their covers. But one of the immediately striking things about Bad Girls The Musical, whose press release informs us is set in ‘the fictional HMP Larkhall’ (though to the best of my recollection this is not stated at any point in the evening’s proceedings), is that the inmates are not in prison garb.
I wondered if this was to do with the new, more conciliatory regime being brought in by Helen Stewart (Tori Hargreaves). In the old adage, though, you learn something new every day: unlike their American counterparts, women have not been required to wear prison-issue clothing in UK jails since 1971.
Maybe dinner lines in ladies’ wings of British jails really do look like fashion parades, as they do in this show.
I’ve never been handed down a custodial sentence, so without any direct experience, my entire knowledge of prison life is derived from what I’ve seen and read and heard about; the memoirs of Jonathan Aitken (one of which is called Pride and Perjury), the motion picture Starred Up, and a television series called Inside Death Row With Trevor McDonald, to name a few. I’m still not sure quite how much theatrical licence was deployed in this musical. It all came across as very convincing, down to the finer details of the officer [sic] politics and the tactics of the inmates in the ‘us and them’ psyche of the place.
A jaunty number, Jailcraft, made the seeming antagonist senior officers, Jim Fenner (Gareth Davies) and Sylvia Hollamby (Maggie Robson) almost likeable; it’s in fresh-faced Justin Mattison (Perry Meadowcroft) that the women prisoners find an ally to help them expose corruption in the prison system. Tune after tune proves compelling, and the songs in this musical help to drive the narrative forward, so we are not left waiting for a tune to finish so the story can continue. An excellent variety of musical numbers are presented in a range of tempos and styles.
As it is presented here, it could get a little lost on a larger proscenium arch stage. It’s suitably contained in this relatively small space. The inmates are mostly a bunch of very strong characters, save for Rachel Hicks (Sarah Goggin), the subject of what I will only call ‘the critical incident’ that irreversibly changes the course of the story for everyone in it. There is some dark humour to be enjoyed, as the prisoners strive to make the best of their current circumstances.
It was so compelling that some in the audience were itching for the interval to be over. Thoughts become more reflective and poignant in the second half, while the action becomes more vicious, both physically and psychologically. Look out for a great moment where the implausibility of musical narratives in general, and the oh-so-very convenient endings, are beautifully and succinctly demonstrated.
It does lose its way more than a little in Act Two, particularly in a drawn-out scene where Shell Dockley (Sinead Long) gets her revenge on Jim Fenner; her fellow inmates think she went beyond her remit, even if they were singing a tune beforehand about being “the baddest and the best”. Apart from Long, I found Yvonne Atkins (Christine Holman) and the Bible-quoting Crystal Gordon (Livvy Evans) to be the most engaging prisoners.
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This show continues a musical theatre tradition of a final number that looks to a brighter future – in context, it is, perhaps, a deeper sentiment here than many other musicals. And for those who think a musical isn’t a musical unless there’s a love story, you’re in luck in the form of an unlikely pairing. The small but flawless band, led by Alex Bellamy, blend in perfectly with the vocals of the cast, with sound levels overall perfectly balanced throughout. It’s not so much ‘bad’ as it is breathtaking.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Bad Girls is a fresh, funny and original British musical, based on characters from the award winning and hugely popular television drama; Shell Dockley, Denny Blood, Nikki Wade and of course the Two Julies!
Set in the fictional HMP Larkhall, it’s the story of new idealistic Wing Governor Helen Stewart and her battles with the entrenched old guard of Officer Jim Fenner and his sidekick Sylvia Hollamby.
A tragic death on the wing – in which Jim Fenner is implicated – leads to an angry protest from the women and forces Helen and Nikki to their opposite sides of the bars. But when it’s clear that Helen stands to lose her job over Jim Fenner’s misdeeds, the race is on for the women to nail Jim once and for all.
Bad Girls: The Musical
Book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus
Music and lyrics by Kath Gotts
Originally directed by Maggie Norris
Orchestrations by Martin Koch
Directed by Will Keith & Choreographed by Jo McShane
Musial Director Alex Bellamy
Designed by Jess Phillips and Lighting Design by Jack Weir
NIKKI WADE Ceili O’Connor
YVONNE ATKINS Christine Holman
CRYSTAL GORDON Livvy Evans
JULIE JOHNSTON Catherine Digges
NOREEN BIGGS Francine Rowan
HELEN STEWART Tori Hargreaves
SYLVIA “BODYBAG” HOLLAMBY Maggie Robson
JUSTIN MATTISON Perry Meadowcroft
SHELL DOCKLEY Sinead Long
DENNY BLOOD Imelda Warren-Green
JULIE SAUNDERS Jayne Ashley
RACHEL HICKS Sarah Goggin
JIM FENNER Gareth Davies
ENSEMBLE Amy Christen-Ford, Meg McCarthy, Eloise Davies, Melissa Po
9th March to 2nd April 2016
Tuesday to Saturday @ 7.30pm
Saturday and Sunday @ 2.30pm
Tickets £20 / £17 concessions