Sunday, 9 November 2014

Theatre review: Girlfriends

The Howard Goodall season at the Union concludes with Girlfriends, about the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during World War II, with Goodall providing the music and collaborating with Richard Curtis and John Retallack on book and lyrics. The cast features 10 women, playing the girls who enlisted to help behind the scenes on RAF missions, starting with menial but crucial jobs like folding and packing parachutes, getting to know and have relationships with the airmen, not all of whom would be returning from their missions. It's largely an attempt to give an overview of the WAAFs' lives, but it does feature a fairly slight central story of best friends Amy (Corrinne Priest) and Lou (Perry Lambert.) The latter falls for dashing pilot Guy (Tom Sterling) but he only has eyes for her friend. Meanwhile Jas (Catriana Sandison,) whose family has been devastated by bombings, becomes disillusioned and questions the value of simply inflicting similar damage on German families.

Goodall opens Girlfriends with "First Day," which feels like a (to me, unsuccessful) attempt at some Sondheim-style complexity, but while a similar discordant style appears in a couple of other numbers, for the most part the songs fall back on a more traditional musical theatre style - but still without much that stands out.

Sadly the show is something of a non-event, and if there are strengths to be found in it, it becomes quickly apparent Bronagh Lagan's production wouldn't make them apparent, at least not from where I was sitting. The Union is something of an awkward space, a long room with four metal pillars in the middle of it, but designers have found configurations that work there. Nik Corrall, however, has put the audience all along one side making for a wide, end-on stage with most of the staging in the middle. Lagan and choreographer Iona Holland also concentrate the action centre stage, meaning that everything is blocked towards just one of the four seating blocks. Instead of bringing the audience slightly closer in, the creatives have opted to leave a few square feet stage right almost permanently empty and in shadow, keeping the action tightly between the central pillars.

So even though I wasn't right at the end (there was a whole seating block to my left) I felt utterly disengaged from the action. While there's a few strong moments - Catherine Mort as Jane, singing "The Chances Are" about the airman she loved and lost is a standout - the combination of a pretty flimsy storyline and somehow feeling like I was watching from miles away despite being in an intimate space, meant there was little here to feel any connection with. If you do go see Girlfriends, make sure you sit in the second seating bank from the entrance; maybe then you'll feel as if the cast are even aware you're there.

Girlfriends by Howard Goodall, Richard Curtis and John Retallack is booking until the 22nd of November at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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