Watching Daisy Pulls It Off is a double exercise in nostalgia. Firstly of the false but infinitely enjoyable kind, the celebration of the jolly hockey sticks lifestyle of a 1920s girls’ boarding school - familiar from books, experienced by few. Secondly, and this conjures up more real and embarrassing memories, Denise Deegan’s pastiche is a play I performed in during my own school days.
This wouldn’t warrant mention except that I am not alone. Thanks to its large cast and simple staging, Deegan’s play is hugely popular with schoolgirl drama groups, though rarely revived professionally despite winning the equivalent of an Olivier Award at its 1983 premiere.
Director Nadine Hanwell’s production transfers to the Arts Theatre from Barons Court with a stirling report. In that sense, it's rather like its heroine Daisy Meredith, an elementary (i.e. state school) pupil who wins a scholarship to the exclusive Grangewood School for Girls, only to be met with snobbery and suspicion by teachers and pupils alike. Never mind that Daisy is top of the class, sings like an angel and proves a dab hand with a hockey stick – this is 1927, when privately educating an East End girl is social experiment of the most dangerous kind.
Hanwell and her gymslipped cast have a lot of fun with this, faces beautifully straight for every fresh funk or feast the girls find themselves in. Japes and crushes abound – “just like they do in schools in books” says Daisy breathlessly – and fans of Dimsie and The Chalet School will recognise the reference points.
Too often, however, the play veers into Enid Blyton territory (and not in a good way), its characters undeveloped and set-pieces stagey. The big plot reveal is swallowed in a sound-cue and only an underlying channel of anti-Communist feeling – “It’s probably to help his Bolshevik friends” observes Daisy of sneaky Russian teacher Mr Scoblowski – adds spice.
The actors do make the most of what they've got. Lucy Austin is pluck personified as the heroine, Rebecca Haigh an excellent foil as best chum Trixie and Jennifer Page all lisp and spittle as resident toadie Monica. But it’s hard to get past the notion that Deegan’s play has dated, not from its 1920s setting so much as its early 80s staging. These days we want our pastiche served with punch and sadly Daisy is just too squeaky clean to pack it.