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Review Round-up: Have TV Bad Girls Turned Good?

By • West End
Bad Girls - The Musical, the stage adaptation of the long-running ITV drama of the same name, received its West End premiere this week at the Garrick Theatre, facing the critics on Wednesday 12 September 2007 (previews from 16 August) followed by a star-studded opening gala last night (See Today’s WOS TV).

The television drama, set in the fictional HMP Larkhall, ran on ITV for eight series from 1999 to 2006. The musical, written by the creators of the television series and first seen in July 2006 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, is based around some of the core characters from season one.

In it, idealistic new Wing Governor Helen Stewart tries to make improvements on G Wing, but old guard officers, including Jim Fenner and his sidekick Sylvia Hollamby, stand in her way. A death on the ward leads to an angry protest which also forces Stewart and her love interest inmate Nikki Wade onto their opposite sides of the bars. Other featured inmate characters include Shell Dockley and her runner Denny Blood, the Two Julies, and the top dog and missus to the king of gangland, Yvonne Atkins.

Helen Fraser recreates her screen role as Sylvia ‘Bodybag’ Hollamby on stage in a cast that also features Sally Dexter, Nicole Faraday, David Burt, Laura Rogers, Julie Jupp, Amanda Posener, Caroline Head, Rebecca Wheatley and Chris Grierson.

Bad Girls - The Musical has a book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus with music and lyrics by Kath Gotts. Its songs include “All Banged Up”, “Jailcraft”, “The A-List”, “One Moment”, “The Baddest and the Best” and “Freedom Road”. The production is directed by Maggie Norris, who also helmed it in Leeds, and designed by Colin Richmond, with lighting by Tim Mitchell, orchestrations by Martin Koch and choreography by Anne Yee.

Although not invited to be part of the usual first-night glitz, the critics’ praise today suggests they weren’t bitter. Although acknowledging that Bad Girls - The Musical didn’t contain material of too much depth, all remarked upon the show’s “entertaining” qualities and its ability to switch “between gritty melodrama and gaudy glitter” in a style not unlike Billy Elliot. What’s more, as the Evening Standard’s Nicholas De Jongh points out, it is indeed “the first lesbian musical” in the West End, and its overdue arrival as such should be applauded.


  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “Bad Girls - The Musical represents a serious and fairly entertaining attempt to draw our attention to the iniquities of a prison system which ‘bangs up’ women who shouldn’t be there and subjects them to abuse and humiliation from the staff who despise them. This makes the show sound grimmer than it is … The authors Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus may not have re-written the history of musical theatre, but they have produced a tight, taut show full of human spirit … Kath Gotts’ music is serviceable rather than inspired – with Willy Russell on board this could have been a new Blood Brothers – and, as in all ‘working class’ British musicals from Billy to Billy Elliot, there are slightly cringe-inducing break-outs into glitter balls, chorus lines and high kicks. But ‘A Life of Grime’ and ‘All Banged Up’ are terrific numbers, brilliantly executed by Julie Jupp, Rebecca Wheatley and Sally Dexter, and Maggie Norris’ vibrant production roars on to a life-enhancing finale.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (three stars) – “It’s overheavy to report that there’s rather a lot of political correctness here and too little recognition that some women do things evil enough to merit imprisonment. It’s probably also misguided to say that, compared with Chicago, this show is more camp than sophisticated. Bad Girls aspires to be little more than reform-minded fun that comes complete with Colin Richmond’s atmospheric steel-and-silhouette sets and tunes composed by Kath Gotts that aren’t all that rich or hummable but are always lively and energetic. There’s a lament for sex – ‘We’re banged up without the bang’ – and even a Busby Berkeley spoof, with a dreamy David Burt leading a spangled chorus line of spruced-up prisoners. There’s also the excellent Sally Dexter as a gangster’s wife who unnerves the officers and reduces the prison toughs to jelly. I wish we had seen more of her before she scarpered with a protégé to Spain. I also wonder if their escape was such terrific news for British justice. But again, that’s overheavy.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Damn it all - it might not be Shaw, but it sure is a hell of a lot of fun. The TV programme began in gritty, grimy fashion, but became ever camper and more outlandish in its characters and plot lines, and in this musical stage version the collision between gritty melodrama and gaudy glitter is often spectacular. There can't be many musicals in which a terrified young woman hangs herself in her cell after being raped by a corrupt prison warder, only for the show to move speedily on to a Busby Berkeley-style dance routine with the entire company tap-dancing on an illuminated staircase. But there is something oddly exhilarating about the piece's shuddering lurches in mood, its tongue-in-cheek humour and its ferocious desire to entertain … The show's secret weapon, however, is Kath Gotts, who has written both music and lyrics, and strikes me as the brightest new prospect for British musical theatre in years … No one could accuse Bad Girls - The Musical of being great art. But for an entertaining night of salacious humour, strong songs and good old-fashioned melodrama, it's hard to beat and deserves to thrive.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Despite the existence of Sing-Sing, a prison is not a natural setting for a musical … But, in turning this TV series into a musical, Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus (book) and Kath Gotts (music and lyrics) never seem sure whether the songs spring from external reality or internal dreams … The plot doesn't bear close scrutiny, and the constant need for a number yields all sorts of contradictions: after Fenner, played with smiling diabolism by the excellent David Burt, has been exposed as a villain, it is a bit rich to present him as an Astaire wannabe. Yet, though the piece is preposterous hokum, the show is put across with enormous zest. Sally Dexter as a mobster's wife has a Sophia Loren-like swagger, Laura Rogers as the do-gooding governor and Caroline Head as the cop-killer touchingly express their furtive passion, and Nicole Faraday, as Larkhall's head girl, puts across a country and western number with style. Even a prison musical, as Maggie Norris' energetic production proves, can be redeemed if delivered with suitable conviction.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (three stars) - “I offer a warm welcome to Bad Girls, the first lesbian musical to hit the West End … Bad Girls now offers authentic pleasure to those of us who enjoy serious issues camped up to melodrama level … Film projections vividly set the prison scene in Maggie Norris' insufficiently flippant production. Kath Gotts' not very tuneful songs range from the unfunny, Lionel Bartish A Life of Grime by way of the odd anthem and pugilistic pop number, to the amusing, satirical spectacular: a chorus line of prison officers in a Busby Berkeley routine and an Astaire/Rogers tap-dancing duo. What with David Burt's sinister, smiling officer Jim Fenner, sexually taking advantage of his female charges, a suicide, a menacingly real riot and Yvonne's battle to become hen rather than cock of the walk, this ladies' wing of Larkhall prison makes a boisterous impression. The dialogue crackles and snaps convincingly with lush vulgarity, innuendo and violence … Bad Girls needs a touch more lesbian liberation. Despite a criminology professor's plaudits in the programme, Bad Girls offers no indictment of our primitive penal policy for women.”

    - by Tom Atkins


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