This makes the show sound grimmer than it is, and doesn’t allow for the passing nod to genuine malefactors, arsonists, habitual shop-lifters and delinquents. But I think most of us believe that women are a much nicer lot than men and not often party to the horrors of organised crime or mass murders. Prostitution only exists because men create the market for it.
The authors Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus – they wrote the television series on which the show is based, as well as Footballers’ Wives – may not have re-written the history of musical theatre, but they have produced a tight, taut show full of human spirit, and rooted in the burgeoning friendship between Nikki (Caroline Head) who has killed a policeman who was raping her girlfriend, and Helen (Laura Rogers), a new officer on the block who “hopes to make a difference”.
Comparisons are odious, but there are similarities with both Chicago and The Beggar’s Opera, without the shiny slickness of the first or the distilled social anger of the second. Still, when Sally Dexter’s voluptuous Yvonne turns up in vertiginous stilettos and red leather – “Hi, girls; just popped in for a quick four years” - she galvanises the inmates like some transsexual Mack the Knife and the party mood (“We need glamour in our lives/ Out on the razz, like footballers’ wives”) swiftly turns to a riot.
That chaos is prompted by the tragic suicide of one of the new prisoners, Rachel (Emily Aston), after she has been compromised by David Burt’s lascivious prison officer, who operates as a licensed sex machine after lights out. Can such abuse really take place in our prisons? The behaviour is tacitly sanctioned by Michael Harbour’s frog-faced Number One and Helen Fraser’s radiant, chuckling female screw.
Kath Gotts’ music is serviceable rather than inspired – with Willy Russell on board this could have been a new Blood Brothers (what the heck is Willy Russell doing by the way?) – 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 La Dexter, and Maggie Norris’ vibrant production roars on to a life-enhancing finale.
- Michael Coveney