Ever thought about going to prison? I have to admit that there are times when the idea has quite appealed to me. No real worries, three meals a day, do an OU degree/Masters for free and get fit in the gym. Of course, that is not the reality for many and prison is often a dark, frightening and violent place best avoided at all costs. Still, there’s a fascination with the idea of prison life. Look at the various films and TV shows set in one of the world’s jails. Not to be outdone, musical theatre has its own salute to life inside in the shape of Bad Girls: The Musical which I have just seen at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate Village.
HM Prison, Larkhill is welcoming a new inmate today. Rachel Hicks (Megan Jobling) is young, terrified and totally unsure of what is going on as she goes through prison induction under the brusque and impersonal eye of Senior Officer Sylvia “BodyBag” Hollamby (Carol Sharp) to whom, Rachel is just another guilty person better off behind bars than on the streets. This idea is not shared by ‘G’ Wing Governor, Helen Stewart (Bella Bowen) who, unlike Principal Officer Jim Fenner (Alexander Forster) believes prison is meant to be a part of rehabilitation rather than just a place of punishment. Fenner, who has a very close relationship with prison boss Number One (Tony Sharp) does not like his new boss and is worried she may put a stop to some of his extracurricular activities. Helen tries to reassure Rachel but that reassurance pales into insignificance once Rachel meets the other occupants of ‘G’ Wing. At the top of the prisoner-hierarchy is Shell Dockley (Nicole Faraday) who maintains control with the help of her sidekick, Denny Blood (Jade Marvin) and instantly makes sure Rachel knows her place. Also on the wing are the two Julie’s (Lucyelle Cliffe & Anna Middlemass), the epitome of tarts with a heart who keep everyone fed. Then there is devout Christian Crystal Gordon (Alex-May Roberts) a bible basher with an interesting take on Jesus’ attitudes to commerce, and finally Noreen Biggs (Vicki York) an older prisoner, keen on finding chemical ways to alleviate prison life. Life on the wing is fairly routine. The women’s lives run in a routine and unvaried pattern controlled by Fenner, Sylvia and Justin Mattison (Benjamin Connor) a handsome young prison office who attracts a lot of attention from the female inmates. However, that routine is about to be disrupted by two major changes, the return to the wing of lifer Nikki Wade (Rebecca Eastham) and the arrival of vivacious gangster’s wife Yvonne Atkins (Hayley-Jo Whitney).
I never saw Bad Girls when it was on television but friends of mine, who had seen the original very raw and powerful drama, expressed surprise that it had been turned into a musical, and that is understandable. Not that many shows, as Director Rebecca Eastham notes in the programme, riots, a hanging and songs about banging! But, Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus’ book, along with and music and lyrics by Kath Gotts turns an impossible idea into a great couple of hours of musical theatre that makes the inmates and, in some respects. the prison staff, more than just cogs in the system and turns them into real people with real, and very understandable, problems.
I really liked this production of Bad Girls: The Musical. As you would expect, the writing is very much in the female prisoner’s favour but, although I did get to like the girls, the question of how much their crimes can be taken into consideration to mitigate that likability did give me pause for thought. For example, Shell is a quite nasty character but, in the writing and Nicole Faraday’s excellent portrayal, there is a lot to like about her. Saying that though, even when she does the right thing, her actions really had me in two minds about whether she was doing it for the right reasons. A fascinating series of characters that could easily provoke a lot of post-show debate.
The cast are exceptionally strong and there were some really stand out moments, such as Alex-May Roberts performance of “Freedom Road” which opens the second act and really sets the tone for the second half of the story. I’ve also got to mention Alexander Forster’s performance as Mr Fenner who, without giving too much away, is creepy and full of menace but without slipping into pantomime villainy.
All in all, Bad Girls: The Musical worked for me on many levels. The multiple stories combined nicely to make a cohesive whole, though I do think a couple of characters could have been explored by the writers more than they were. The songs were nicely written and I liked the fact that in places, the tone of the song was at complete variance to the sentiments being expressed within it. And everything was delivered by a fine cast in Andrew Exeter’s extremely effective set. Ultimately, whilst I’m still not that keen on being locked up in jail, I have to say the Bad Girls were ruddy good and well worth a trip to darkest north London.
Review by Terry Eastham
Bad Girls: the Musical is based on the popular ITV1 prison drama series, Bad Girls, also by Chadwick and McManus.
Bad Girls introduces us to an anarchic bunch of women on the edge and up against the odds – prostitutes, addicts, shop-lifters, murderers.
Full of big songs and characters, Bad Girls is an exhilarating mix of gritty reality, rebellious spirit, emotional honesty and irreverent humour, that touches hearts and kicks up a riot.
Book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus
Music and lyrics by Kath Gotts
Shell Dockley – Nicole Faraday
Julie Saunders – Lucyelle Cliffe
Nikki Wade – Rebecca Eastham
Helen Stewart – Bella Bowen
Denny Blood – Jade Marvin
Justin Mattison – Benjamin Connor
Sylvia Hollamby – Carol Sharp
Crystal Gordon – Alex-May Roberts
Julie Johnston – Anna Middlemass
Rachel Hicks and Swing – Megan Jobling
Jim Fenner – Alexander Forster
Number One – Tony Sharp
Yvonne Atkins – Hayley-Jo Whitney
Noreen Biggs – Vicki York
Cover Rachel Hicks and Dance Captain – Alice Hutson
Swing – Joe Phillips
CREATIVE AND PRODUCTION TEAM
Director – Rebecca Eastham
Assistant Directors – Joe Phillips and Jennifer Harrison
Musical Supervisor – Lawrence Michalowski
Musical Director – Ben David Papworth
Choreographer – Rachel Chapman
Set and Lighting Designer – Andrew Exeter
Company Stage Manager – Joe Phillips
Stage Manager – Lydia Holford
Costume Designer – R.A.B. Productions
Production Assistant – Angie Lawrence
Producer – R.A.B. Productions