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FringeReview UK 2023

A Manchester Girlhood

Pascal Theatre Company

Genre: Biographical Drama, Drama, Fringe Theatre, Historical, Short Plays, Theatre

Venue: Burgh House


Low Down

Julia Pascal’s A Manchester Girlhood is a rich work, a slice of generations happening. Rosie Yadid’s musical arrangements furnish the greatest amplification of this lighting-sketch of heritage, rendering soul and hope, the essence of generations.

Written and Directed by Julia Pascal, Sound Design Joe Jackson, Musical Direction Rosie Yadid, Costume Design and Realisation Lesley Lightfoot. Stage Management Lauren Patman, Greg Blank. Photography by Simon Raynor, Claire Griffiths and Chris Payne.

Till May 21st at Hampstead JW3


Though starting its micro-run at Burgh House Julia Pascal’s A Manchester Girlhood, which continues at JW3 till May 21st.

is the second work in five months to draw attention to Pascal’s unique Jewish focus as a dramatist. Again, it’s a five-hander: Pascal draws strength from intensive interaction in a tight space.

Those lucky enough to have caught the premiere of Pascal’s magnificent, pocket-sized epic 12:37 at the Finborough last December, will have been struck by how Pascal extrapolates elements of family history and speculates on a relationship between relatives and others: which ended in their being on opposites sides of the King David Hotel bombing of 1946.

Reviving her 2019 A Manchester Girlhood – as usual also directed by Pascal – you see how the later work removes itself from literal recall and speculates to richer effect. 12:37 extrapolates elements of Pascal’s Irish-Jewish heritage; this work reflects on her Rumanian one.

Traditions, faiths, cultures shift with each member, though none are foregrounded: the narrative being fleet and pacy, with intriguing eddies. A mother and father leave their native Bucharest in 1910, in the face of anti-Semitism, settling in Manchester. Their three daughters’ experience through the 20th century is varied, fractious, troubled and uplifting.

If, also recalling Ireland, one thinks of say Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa (currently revived at the NT),  you see how each work of Pascal’s here fall either side of it, on a scale of veracity and invention. Friel’s is a play truthful, even literal (as here, the real names of women relatives are given); but it’s clear how on the one side 12:37 roves far from family history, and in A Manchester Girlhood, is by contrast far more tightly bound than Friel’s work to it. No wild riff, or even with Friel, drastically altering a few facts whilst leaving the rest literal. Occasionally it’s what you might call imaginative verbatim: real speeches and comments with their context reconstructed.

Pascal deploys, as before Brechtian announcements and even Scenes (14 in all) to punctuate the narrative. In 12:37 she managed this with more space, in elegant newspaper hoardings or placards. At Burgh House, with (paradoxically) a far larger audience (over 60) Pascal has actors semaphore scene changes, where years and continents leap underneath the sisters’ shifting voices, landing very differently.

Esther (Rosie Yadid, also musical arranger and mesmerising singer) baulks at her parents’ presenting s third potential husband. This is Emanuel (Eoin O’Dubhghaill’s primary role) both proud and sexually possessive to begin with, as Esther makes the best of it. O’Dubhghaill, who also appeared in 12: 37 enjoys the greatest number of male roles, from Emanuel through to a couple of husbands, American, and other.

The narrative pressure though is one the three siblings, with an underlying Chekhovian sense of how things change with glacial slowness, and where the greatest virtue seems to be endurance. Though roughly chronological and settling around Manchester or the U.S., Pascal here lets time eddy and flashbacks to much earlier mean the narrative’s not entirely linear. Another feature is how even in Jewish households, women are only slowly allowed access in learning how to read and write. Pascal traces too the difference in generational aspiration. More even than her more recent work singing and choric shape-shifting underscore the drama. Here the singing sees pivotal.

Isabel (Lesley Lightfoot, also deft costume designer), plays the eldest: status-obsessed marrying a good doctor, and at times petulant in wishing to own a doll though it’s a younger sister’s birthday, she gets what she asks for; and finds it wanting. It’s a fine study in an unsympathetic, status-obsessed character, finding that “a doctor’s wife” though noble with the NHS, isn’t a towering social statement.

 Edith’s (Giselle Wolf) is the longest journey: war finds her eager to volunteer. Rebuffed at first in a memorable scene (a rehearsal version is on YouTube attached to the publicity) where her parents’ alien status is scorned (they were too poor to register a naturalised) Edith is later so successful – commissioned and in charge of munitions – that she’s asked to stay on at the end of the war to help with logistics. She turns this – and her dream of Cambridge – down, for marriage to her “Christian” fighter-pilot. Wolf’s palpable agonising over whether to accept a new faith for the man’s sake – she palpably doesn’t feel comfortable – is another highlight, with O’Dubhghaill’s oleaginous priest. Edith luckily does go on to qualify with a row of letters, as educator.

The youngest Pearl (Amanda Maud) tangles with O’Dubhghaill’s GI, who turns out unfortunately as racist as many rednecks, whereas Peal’s the opposite. Suggestions of her relationships with Black activists  lap at the edges, and not for the first time you wonder at what’s said, what’s transmitted. It also brings one of the finest a cappella moments comes with a split chorus, one singing “This is the Army Mr Jones” and another a very British  song, Maud conveying both exuberance and pathos, manages a kind of dying fall of hope: high energy to shrunken seeker, looking outside her comfortable lifestyle for answers. Of all the telegraphed lives, perhaps this is sketched in the most suggestively, and one wants to know more.

The greatest shock though is reserved for the parents. O’Dubhghaill’s sudden request of Yadid is the surprise of the evening. And Yadid’s musical arrangements the greatest amplification of this lighting-sketch of heritage, rendering soul and hope, the essence of generations.

Whilst not designed to probe as 12:37 does, A Manchester Girlhood is a rich work that ideally, one would like to see expanded a little more from its 60 minutes; perhaps shaped even further to its shock reveal. It’s a slice of generations happening, and that – Pascal might counter – might be enough. Thoroughly recommended.