FringeReview UK 2016
Stratford East is one of the producing venues of Glasgow Girls and alongside Glasgow Citizens, can lay claim to be the natural home of a protest musical with one or two truly memorable big tunes and a big-hearted take on a true story. Cora Bissett both part-composes and directs this explosively timely musical with book by David Greig, for a revival tour, freshly designed by Jessica Brettie after Merle Hensel’s original, freshly cast too. It’s an unfussy gantry set.
Cora Bissett both part-composes and directs this explosively timely musical, with book by David Greig, for a revival tour, freshly designed by Jessica Brettie after Merle Hensel’s original, freshly cast too. Its an unfussy gantry set. Stratford East is one of the producing venues and alongside Glasgow Citizens, can lay claim to be the natural home of a protest musical with one or two truly memorable big tunes and a big-hearted take on a true story.
It might almost have been called The Geography Girls. The original story’s both compelling and admits inevitable drawbacks when placed alongside the unbridled parabola of pure fiction, as in Warner/Hall’s raucous but heartbreaking Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour – with which this musical bears uncanny comparison. Glasgow Girls came first (just) with a historical narrative spanning 2000-05; the original novel of Our Ladies dates from 1998.
The real Glasgow Girls are now in their mid-twenties, with burgeoning careers, and families: they’re intimately involved with the process and attend performances. Joan Littlewood would have loved it. The drawback is that you can’t take liberties with personal interaction, the shaded dynamics that make the personal political. But the collective personal is political enough, and though we don’t plumb insights, we gain a breath-taking slice of the reality for displaced asylum-seekers in the UK. That this musical’s big enough to unashamedly shout its message is a huge tribute to its efficacy: nothing less than creative mastery of this terrible injustice would do it justice.
After a magnificent strutting headliner ‘We Are the Glasgow Girls’ written by MC Soom (Sumati Bhardwaj) that once heard you’ll not forget, we’re into the splintering of immigration squads. Bissett and Greig focus on a streamlined narrative from 2000 to 2005 and the sudden crash of immigration enforcement officers who take one and threaten to take two families away, now that Kossovo and the Iraq are deemed no longer dangerous. That is, unless you’re an ethnic minority like Roma. The girls from diverse communities including Scottish heritage band together to fight, enlisting their reluctantly heroic teacher who galvanises them from a school strike to national action.
Bissett wrote the lion’s share of songs and ensemble-bangers like ‘It’s No A Wean’s Choice’ ring out with new-minted authority. After her Patricia Panther’s two pieces – both sung by her – stand out. Kara Swinney’s commanding Emma and Shannon Swann’s Jennifer the communicator swell the band, each showing a different timbre, a glint of a different singer. Stephanie McGregor’s Ewelina exudes an air of sparks just gone up.
We’re treated first to Agensa’s story, the Kossovan whose family are bundled like criminals without belongings into a deporting depot in Bedforshire. Roanna Davidson plays touch scare pragmatic, and like each of the core group takes her chance singing. Next up is Iraqi Amal the law-fixated Aryana Ramkhalawon – a commanding presence in a small frame, wearing her hijab like a bandanna – who cannot understand her father’s mode of coping by ironing his suit to present a crease to the world. Amal’s dialectic shows in embryo the human rights activist she’s now becoming. Sophia Lewis is the Somalian Roza who’s not threatened but warned by her mother versatile Patricia Panther whose two numbers create the law enforcement songs; Panther acts all the nasties with a wonderful singing range. (And for this important record Roza now works for the Trades Union MP Chris Stephens).
Callum Cuthbertson’s Mr Girvan their teacher and legal rights mentor and inspirer, enjoys riffing on guitar and vocals, and his journey from trying to explain the Burns poem ‘To a Mouse’ to his bewildered newly-immigrant class of 2000 is beautifully counterpointed by their accompanying him at the end – when the notion of being thrown out of your home – again – has become almost too prescient.
Setbacks and victories are shadowed at the end of Act One by Ewlina’s being targeted; the second half’s uneasily aware of needing to tell a story. Terry Neason up to now mainly in travestied headmaster trousers shines as Noreen deconstructing narrative in a cuddly Brechtian kind of way: she doesn’t like musicals and chivvies the now desponding girls that there’s only ten minutes to go and we need a happy ending: that kind of post-modern take on Don Quixote, one might say. Neason’s terrifically able to hold a stage but she ensures Mr Girvan isn’t holding the fort by himself after the Scottish First Minister’s fine words have done nothing for little Ali and his mother – a Celtic supporter deported back to God knows where. So back troop the class. The inevitable ending’s nicely pointed by pleas to spread the word of musical and message.
This is clearly more than a musical, though some of the songs here – most memorably the ‘We Are the Glasgow Girls’ – already own a life. Even on fictive terms this would garner praise for its raw power, its beating passion for justice and humanity, its finely crafted first act narrative and its witty explosion of it in the second. Difficult as it might be not to come away warmed this ensemble – and original musical – make it so very easy. This needs to be everywhere and should be shown if not live, then screened, with outtakes perhaps from the original Glasgow Girls themselves. Bissett began in 2010 not realizing how terribly timely this work would become; but the piece itself seems to know exactly.