Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Judith Adam’s adaptation is a bright and shimmering comedy that ultimately fails to capture the dark heart of the Muriel Spark’s novella, but entertains with a strong ensemble performance from Stellar Quines.
Adaptation is a strange and somewhat slippery beast, sometimes even a treacherous one. In the transition from one form to another the essence of the original is often lost. Perhaps this is particularly true of adaptations of Muriel Spark where duality and subtext are at least as important as the narrative thread.
In attempting to take on Spark’s 1963 novella, The Girls of Slender Means, Stellar Quines have taken that risk. Judith Adam’s adaptation does not lack in ambition and does hit some of the buttons but although it captures much of the period and plays with the non linear narrative in a way that stays true to the text, it misses out on much of the darkness and acerbity that are so key to the novel.
The play’s main action is sandwiched in that period at the end of the second world war between VE day and VJ day when the world seemed poised on the brink of a bright new future but where the spectre of the bomb to end all wars loomed. It follows the fortunes of a group of young women living in the May of Teck Club in Kensington for impoverished young ladies who have fallen on hard times. As the club reverberates to elocution teacher, Joanne’s rendering of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s Wreck of the Deutschland, the girls flirt with returning soldiers dressed in a Schiaparelli dress shared for special occasions. When a young poet, Nicholas Farringdon, is introduced to the girls he falls in love with their youth and hope and is changed irrevocably by the experience.
There are some very strong central performances, particularly from Maureen Beattie as Greggie and from Melody Grove as Joanne Childs. The play captures well the characters of each of the girls – Jane, the plain literary wannabe; Selena, the poised debutante and Pauline, the deluded and ethereal lost spirit. In a fringe dominated by one or two man shows, it is wonderful to see a play with twelve actors and particularly one where strong female characters dominate the action.
Judith Adam’s script like Spark’s novel is splintered and episodic. Like the novel the play makes frequent and unpredictable time changes between present moment where a momentous event sheds meaning on the past which is the centre of the action. While mirroring Spark’s narrative method, this is unsatisfying to those familiar with the novel and confusing to those unfamiliar with it. This is an ambitious adaptation, but ultimately the essential themes of sacrifice and of the battle between good and evil as well as the duality of Spark’s novel elude the attempt to capture it.