Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus, creators of Bad Girls, both as a television series and in this stage musical incarnation, aim to place their show in “the old tradition of musical comedy…with a rich combination of ballads, showtime numbers and character songs.” In this they undoubtedly succeed, the comic duets and production numbers generally more memorable than the confessional songs and let’s-face-the-world anthems.

The only drawback with a pacy, highly entertaining production is the writers’ intention to deal with “contemporary problems”. So long as Bad Girls inhabits its own fantasy world, it’s a delight, but the treatment of prison bullying, rape and riot, for instance, is just too glib. Predatory prison officer Jim Fenner (Hal Fowler) becomes a cheerful chancer, half of a delightfully dead-pan song and dance duo with Officer Hollamby (the excellent Rachel Izen), so the rape and suicide of Rachel Hicks disturbs for the wrong reasons, despite Elaine Glover’s sympathetic performance.

Shell Dockley, described as “evil personified”, emerges as little more than a face-pulling school bully, though Nicole Faraday takes full advantage of her musical opportunities, notably a glorious Tammy Wynette and George Jones-type number (with added sex and arson) with the about-to-be-unmasked Jim Fenner.

The story is neatly filleted from many television hours: despite my companion’s complaint that the lesbian kiss between Nikki Wade and Wing Governor Helen Stewart should have come after 2 ½ series, not 2 ½ hours, the pacing of their relationship is assured and unhurried, with both characters given intelligently under-the-top performances by Hannah Waddingham and Laura Rogers. The other main story line is the satisfyingly improbable saga of how an alliance of prison officers and inmates brings about the fall of Fenner.

The sporadic hints of hard-hitting contemporary drama sit uneasily with the cloyingly sweet finale, with all the nice convicts bouncing up and down and hugging each other like the kids from Fame. A more satisfying celebration of decency comes in the subtle scripting and performance (by Neil McDermott) of the role of Justin Mattison, youthful integrity personified.

For most of the evening, there’s far too much going on to worry about realism and morality, with a committed, energetic and vocally accomplished ensemble of 17 giving full value to the fast-moving and often very funny book, and Kath Gotts’s sly lyrics and sharply characterised music. Maggie Norris directs with flair and invention and designer Colin Richmond wisely opts for space and flexibility rather than menace.

- Ron Simpson