Glasgow Girls, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London
Considering that musicals are a genre unmatched in providing sheer unbridled enthusiasm, it’s surprising that Glasgow Girls: The Musical manages to turn things up a notch further - and especially when the subject matter concerns asylum seekers.
As a long-time loather of musicals, admittedly this show was always going to be a challenge. The idea of being cooped up watching people burst into song at every plot turn seemed a lot like imprisonment to me – even a night of avant-garde dance laden with screams and foetal positions seemed more appealing. However, the fact that Glasgow Girls is based upon real and ongoing events lends it a gravitas that drew this naysayer in.
The Glasgow Girls are seven inspirational young Glaswegians, from radically different backgrounds, who continue to raise the profile of asylum seekers who face deportation. This musical plots their story, from when five of them, as asylum seekers, are assigned to the grey and under occupied Kingsway Flats and Drumchapel High school, to the group’s political awakening when Agnesa is detained.
Their endless creativity and hope in trying to reverse this decision captures the attention of the press and the Scottish First Minister. And they go on to win Scottish Campaign of the Year in 2005.
It’s a giddy ride, buoyed by the quality of the songs, and the beaming smiles of the girls. Although the plot is simple, the staging and music are what set it apart. Sumati Bhardwaj and Patricia Panther’s songs are particularly impressive and street savvy; while the senior characters add some healthy doses of characterisation and humour.
When asked to teach the girls to speak English, the corduroy-clad Mr Girvan (Callum Cuthbertson) proclaims, “As a Scots language enthusiast I do regard English as a foreign language”, instantly endearing him to the girls whilst drawing a sub-theme of Scottish independence into the mix. Kingsway Flats resident Noreen’s (Myra McFadyen) dry and self-reflexive reticence at being part of the musical itself, and her potted history of Glasgow’s working class community, is hilarious and moving in equal measure.
At times, the girls themselves seem more like the Spice Girls than Glasgow girls, for better and worse. The group's star quality and obvious relish in performing threatens to diminish the real political story that they are drawing attention to. A play would have allowed a more in-depth look into the story itself, which, as the genre dictates, is secondary to the songs.
Nonetheless, the success of the show on its own terms leaves me gritting my teeth with approval. I have to admit that this musical has softened my heart to the genre – just a wee bit.
Words: Emma Field
Photo: Robert Day