Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Theatre review: Glasgow Girls

Cora Bissett, who starred in David Greig's Midsummer, is wearing her director's hat for her latest collaboration with Greig, which approaches political theatre in a way that's seldom seen. Glasgow Girls is a lively musical based on the true - and ongoing - story of a campaign against the deportation of asylum seekers' children. In 1999, empty flats in Glasgow were deemed a suitable place to house asylum seekers from Kosovo, Iraq, the Congo and elsewhere. Over the years the families settled into their new home and, despite the inevitable "they come here, steal our jobs" minority, were mostly accepted into the community. When the Home Office starts forcibly deporting families whose status has, almost arbitrarily, been changed to "safe," six teenage girls spearhead a campaign to protect the children, many of whom know no other home.

Greig provides the book and Bissett, who conceived the show, is one of the songwriters, along with Sumati Bhardwaj, Patricia Panther and the Kielty Brothers. They make for an eclectic score, ranging from Scottish folk music to reggae, rap and even some more mainstream, poppy musical theatre tunes.

Merle Hensel's set is the concrete stairwell of one of the tower blocks, where the newcomers originally meet with some resistance from their new schoolmates. But when Agnesa (Roanna Davidson) and her family get taken away in a dawn raid, three of the other children of refugees (Amiera Darwish, Stephanie McGregor, Amaka Okafor) and two of their Scottish-born friends (Joanne McGuinness, Dawn Sievewright) start a campaign that eventually takes them to the Scottish Parliament.

There's no end of enthusiasm from the six actresses, who are well supported by Callum Cuthbertson as Mr Girvan, the teacher who first taught them English (despite a personal preference for the Scottish language) and who can bring the campaign a different perspective to the girls' energy.

There's rather a dark, shocking core to Glasgow Girls, the central fear that haunts the immigrant families being the dawn raids that see dozens of immigration officers break down their doors, and feel like a kind of brutality you wouldn't conceive of being officially sanctioned in 21st century Britain. There's a lot of genuine anger in there with the fun, although it does mean the show feels very one-sided; it's a shame that with the campaign being about taking people's individual circumstances into account, the Home Office's side is treated as entirely black and white. I don't think it helps that one song portrays an immigration officer (Patricia Panther) as an out-and-out Mail-reading, reactionary baddie who believes all asylum seekers are "at it."

With Agnesa's family saved and the campaign taking a more general turn, the second act also lacks a bit of focus, although it does benefit from the arrival of the fourth wall-breaking Noreen (Myra McFadyen,) one of a number of local ladies who stand watch in the night to warn families of incoming immigration vans. With a no-nonsense but passionately determined attitude rather than the girls' youthful enthusiasm, she perhaps best embodies the show's central message of community. Its single-minded political focus sometimes works against it, but Glasgow Girls is undoubtedly powerful and entertaining, and with so much being said about searching for new British musicals, this one follows London Road's lead in looking past the obvious subject matters and musical styles.

Glasgow Girls by Cora Bissett, David Greig, Sumati Bhardwaj, Patricia Panther, John Kielty, Gerry Kielty and Martin Kielty is booking until the 2nd of March at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Note - there is a lot of strobe lighting used throughout.

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