Jacqueline Wilson, the undisputed queen of writers of novels for children, is the most borrowed author from libraries and is celebrating her 20-millionth sale. Invoking her name will do a theatre or television company no harm at all.
Which isn’t to say that Polka’s artistic director Annie Wood and the adaptor-director of Bad Girls, Vicky Ireland, are cynical in their choice of material. Ireland was artistic director of this theatre for 14 years, helped to build a strong relationship with the writers of children’s books and knows a good story when she sees one. This is her third adaptation of a Wilson title and she has gone about the task with sympathy and near-absolute faithfulness.
Bespectacled Mandy, condemned by her old-fashioned, fussy mum to wear plaits, has no problem with schoolwork, but her clever geekiness makes her a focus for jealousy and bullying. Horrid Kim and her gang tease and then exclude Mandy until school becomes miserable, despite the well-meant interventions of chivalrous, if nerdy, classmate Arthur. Then Mandy meets Tanya, an “unsuitable” older friend who’s being fostered by a neighbour. Lively, enthusiastic Tanya is gentle with the fostered babies, brings fun into Mandy’s life and silences the bullies, but then she gets done for shop-lifting. The two friends are inevitably separated, but everyone has learned a lesson, including Mum, who stops babying Mandy and accepts her daughter’s support when she is herself unhappy.
Wilson always weaves moral and social issues subtly into her stories so that they don’t overwhelm character or slow the pace. In Bad Girls, she has a new teacher address the serious matter of bullying in a general discussion which hits home to the guilty parties. Ireland has parted from the original in making the peer group deal with the problem while the teacher looks on. This avoids what might have seemed a preachy scene, but it also makes the ostracising of Kim rather more cruel.
Susan Harrison is utterly convincing as young Mandy and Luanna Priestman makes an independent Tanya whose sadness at her separation from her younger sister is lightly but touchingly sketched in. The cast of six, under Ireland’s direction, avoid caricature, although they sail a bit close to the wind when Peter Sowebutts (Dad) dons a blonde wig to become the school’s gravel-voiced female head teacher. It has to be said, however, that the audience accepted this transformation without a murmur.
Bridget Kimak’s design is not the most inventive Polka has come up with, but she uses projections to good effect. The programme is excellent value for money, including a crossword and information about fostering, rainbows and gingerbreadmen. That should keep them occupied on the coach back to school.
- Heather Neill