Bad Girls – The Musical

The Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Friday 23 June 2006


Review by Emma Shane

© 1 July 2006


I am going to be pretty brutally honest in my opinions in this review. So anyone who doesn’t like that sort of thing from an amateur reviewer would be well advised to stop reading now.


The show opens with a clang as the houselights dim. Presently the stage lights go up. New convict Rachel Hicks, played by Elaine Glover, enters from the back of the stage, dressed in a towel; soon joined by prison officer Sylvia Hollamby played severely by Rachel Izen. Everything about Hollamby’s manner (even the way she says “the doctor will give you something to stop the leaking” – Rachel was breastfeeding before being convicted) suggests we are in for gritty realism in this musical drama. Presently they are joined by gentle newish G-wing Governor Helen Stewart, played sympathetically by Laura Rogers. Rachel responds much better to her humane treatment.

Into the show itself, the drapes rise on the main set, I Shouldn’t Be Here. A song with a passing similarity to Kander & Ebb’s He Had It Coming. Various characters enter one by one (or in the case of The Two Julies together –  that creates variety) to take their verse in the song, explaining why there are in prison, and why they shouldn’t be. These include: Nicole Faraday as Shell Dockley (Murder – well torcher really, she didn’t expect her victim to die), Dawn Hope as Crystal Gordon (religion inspired shoplifting), Amanda Posener as Denny Blood (arson), Julie Jupp & Louise Plowright as Julie Saunders & Julie Johnston (Soliciting... and thieving – they were prostitutes who robbed their clients), and finally Hannah Waddingham as Nikki Wade (Murder of a police officer – he was trying to rape her girlfriend). It does something towards setting the scene; or at least for those of us who aren’t familiar with the television series on which the show is based, it introduces the characters. Somehow watching The Two Julies, I was briefly reminded of the prostitutes in the Rule Julia film of Die Drei Groschen Oper (aka Threepenny Opera, aka Mack The Knife). As the prisoners set off for work, there is a little interlude, in which an officer informs Julie Saunders that social services have got involved over her childcare arrangements, it seems that her son (at boarding school) was supposed to live with his aunt during the school holidays. Unfortunately the aunt has got herself nicked too. The officer says he will try and get her a phone number so she can speak to him. Julie S is more concerned that her son will now learn she is in prison rather than working all over the world. Her best friend, Julie Johnston convincingly comforts her.


Rachel Hicks is shown to her cell; and prison officer Jim Fenner, charmingly played by Hal Fowler, offers to keep a special eye on her. Turns out he’s a Mason and may be able to pull strings to help her get her baby back on her release. This made me think of The Magic Flute! – well where else would you find the Masons represented on the stage? Presently Shell, Denny and two other members of Shell’s Crew enter and taunt her, An Angel Like You. In my opinion this was the scariest song in the show, and although I am accustomed to hearing some pretty rough nasty songs in musicals (such as What Goes Around Comes Around in The Water Babies, and, The Army Song in Threepenny Opera), I really disliked this one. I also felt that putting it so early in the show was rather problematic. Firstly because it was horribly off-putting, and secondly because it made me wonder whether this was going to be a “message musical” or what? However Nicole Faraday did perform it as a very convincing character; she’s like Velma Kelly, only worse. Rachel goes to complain to Fenner, and the two Julies, who are supposed to be mopping the floor overhear, until Fenner sends them on their way.


Prison officers Fenner and Hollamby commiserate over the ways of the new G-Wing Governor, and how she doesn’t have Jailcraft. As a musical number this was much more to my taste. I always love a good tap number in a musical (my favourites including The Story Of Lucy And Jesse in Follies, and, Step In Time in Mary Poppins). This one is a tap duet. Hal Fowler really shines in the routine; unfortunately though she dances reasonably well, as a partner Rachel Izen does not quite appear to match him. The number also includes a golf playing interlude, in which The Number One, Michael N Harbour appears riding in The West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Golf Buggy. Apparently this is the first time The Golf Buggy has actually appeared on stage as itself (It’s previous credits include: A Steam Train in The Wind In The Willows, and a flatbed truck in The Postman Always Rings Twice).


Alone in her cell Nikki Wade laments her lot (including her inability to control her vicious temper) One Moment. This is a touching ballad. Musically it is not exactly to my taste (a bit too Lloyd-Webberish for my liking). However, Hannah Waddingham sings it well, with a lot of feeling. I couldn’t help notice she’s got some potential there. Who knows, with her vocal qualities, perhaps one day she might make a good Eva Peron in Evita?


A Prison Officer lets The Two Julies into the next section of the prison they are washing. They’ve popped up at various intervals over the last couple of scenes, wandering past with their buckets and mops. Now they come into their own dueting A Life Of Grime. This is one of the most fun numbers in the show; largely, I am sure, due to it’s excellent performance by Julie Jupp and Louise Plowright. Both visually and lyrically it’s got something. First of course there’s the grimy ironic parallel of the two women washing the floors while singing about their former lives as prostitutes; along with a complicated dance routine, which very much combines the two elements. Musically this number is so so. But of course it is very well sung, especially by Louise. Vocally there are moments when Louise seems to be carrying the number somewhat, but then of the two she’s the stronger singer. Yes there were moments when the balance of power between the characters got a touch skewed where Louise came across a little more strongly, because she’s got quite a presence. When it comes to acting and dancing the number Louise and Julie make a great team. Louise usually is at her best when she’s got someone else to play off. However, it was rather impressive that she managed to keep up with Julie in the dance routine, after all Julie Jupp is Italia Conti trained so you might expect her dancing to be pretty decent. Overall they made a pretty good double act in this number.


Enter another new prisoner, Ellen O’Grady playing gangster’s wife Yvonne Atkins, who has managed to avoid being strip searched, and smuggled an amount of alcohol in with her. For once even Shell Dockley has met her match. Ellen acts with a swaggering conviction. Yes she’s believable, however improbable a character. She leads the company with A List. It’s a fun number. If this number was meant to parody Ethel Merman style belt numbers, then it didn’t. Although Ellen O’Grady is quite a fine reasonably commanding actress. As a singer she’s more Carol Channing than Ethel Merman. Yes she’s got presence, but vocally she lacks power, especially with Hannah Waddington and mighty Louise Plowright amongst her backing chorus. Mind you I think there are very very few singing actresses with the vocal firepower to really compare to Ethel Merman.


Party over, everyone is locked up for the night; Most of the staff go home too, leaving Fenner on the night shift; and a creepy mean nasty solo for Hal Fowler, The Key. Now at last he gets to reveal his true colours; and for those of us who haven’t seen the television series, it’s quite a shock. Yet Hal’s performance of the number has something. I’d never have believed that someone with his training would sing something so pleasantly while playing such a nasty character. It makes for an eerie contrast (a little reminiscent of Louise Plowright’s wonderfully wicked version of My Favourite Things in pantomime last Christmas, not to mention Louise Gold’s rendition of Brimestone And Treacle in Mary Poppins). At any rate the whole combination makes for a creepy number. It concludes with Fenner entering Rachel’s cell to rape her.


The following morning, on unlock, it is found that Rachel has hanged herself. The other prisoners immediately realise why, and led by Nikki begin a riot That’s The Way It Is. Up until now despite even Yvonne’s alcohol smuggling, I had found the plot to be of the plausible gritty type. Now it started to descend into fantastical. As far as dance routines go this number might be called a riot; in a musical comedy sense of the word. For one cannot entirely take it seriously. The prisoners are in one group on the stage, and the officers form another, both groups move around the stage, as though sizing each other up. There are moments where one or other of the prisoners looks like she is about to attack an officer. I particularly noticed tall Louise Plowright bouncing on her feet (like a sportsperson) as though about to square up to someone. After a while the prisoners move from attack mode to trying to trash the place. There was a lot of action going on all over the stage, so it’s hard to notice individuals. However, I particularly noticed the double acts of The Two Julies. Julie Jupp emptying waste paper bins, and Louise Plowright humping a couple of mattresses out and flinging them down on the stage. It concluded the act with suspense, not having a clue what the next act would bring.


Act 2 opens with Crystal alone in her cell, Freedom Road. Dawn Hope is backed by an out of sight backing chorus of the other prisoners. She sang satisfactorily, though I did not particularly care for the song, but then I’m not into hot gospel songs.


Despite the riot, Fenner is quite convinced that The Future Is Bright. Hal Fowler’s tap dancing skills come into play again. This number is clearly a pastiche on Harry Warren & Al Dubin’s work. This time Rachel Izen also danced well in her own solo (perhaps doing a solo suited her dancing better), though her costume looked totally ridiculous, and didn’t really suit her. The rest of the cast provided a Busby Berkley style tap dancing chorus, and such is the costuming that I could not tell who was who. They all performed well.


The Two Julies decide to strike as food servers; which looses them their privileges and visiting rights. Shell and Denny are appointed in their place, P.P.P. Please This is quite a catchy number. I didn’t particularly like it, but it was fairly tuneful. Although Nicole and Amanda’s almost acrobatic dancing (on the servery set) is the main feature of the number; I found myself paying rather more attention to the ensemble’s reactions to their antics. All of them do react one way or another. However it is here that Louise Plowright really stands out for her high calibre acting. The expressions on her face, and even the little gestures with her hands convey so much about what her character is feeling. That was true for most of the show, but it is particularly noticeable in this number (for example the way she looks so distastefully at Nicole’s dancing on the counter). She’s far too good for the role she is playing. The number ends with all the prisoners, except for Shell and Denny deciding to go on hunger strike (after the way those two are behaving it’s hardly surprising).


A prison officer gives Julie Saunders a phone number, so she can speak to her son. She doesn’t have a phone card, but her best friend, Julie Johnston says she can use hers. Louise Plowright is good at playing a best friend with complete conviction. But it is with Louise’s exit, that Julie Jupp comes into her own as a performer singing Sorry. She sings convincingly with a lot of emotion and feeling. It reminded me a bit of Sally Ann Triplett’s performance (of Children And Parents Will Go To War) in The Villains Opera


Night time finds Laura and Hannah performing a twin soliloquy, Every Night. Both sing with feeling, like they mean it. Although I wasn’t too keen on the song musically. It is an integral part of the plot; and has the distinction of being the only song in the show that truly advances the story-line. Well to be honest, Sorry did a little bit, but not as forcibly or as significantly as this does. For it is here we realise that Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade might actually be in love, with each other. Which gives the show a nice romantic twist.


The hunger strike is still on, Yvonne remarks that she can do without food, she can do without liberty, but there’s one thing she cannot do without. She is obviously referring to sex, and despite several of the others, including The Two Julies, remarking that she shouldn’t be saying that “at a time like this” (- well given why Rachel Hicks hanged herself), it doesn’t stop her from launching into a song about it, nor does it stop The Two Julies from providing her backing group, All Banged Up. This is, in my humble opinion, musically the best number in the entire show. It is certainly the most tuneful, and the catchiest. I had it going round in my head for most of the following day. Which for a brand new number, which I had never heard before, must be quite something! It did have the advantage of being rather well sung, by: Ellen O’Grady, Louise Plowright, and, Julie Jupp. Although Louise’s very strong voice tends to dominate, while Julie’s remains very much in the background. This means that the power balance between the characters isn’t quite right. I didn’t mind, because when I go to see a show I like to see performers playing to their full strengths, even if they are supposed to be in supporting roles. Ellen sings well, but lacks power, so it is Louise who really sells the song, not for nothing did she spend five years digging the Dancing Queen in London’s West End. Choreographically the number is also rather fun; and here Ellen and Louise are way ahead of Julie. All three women try to get their arms around the young prison officer Justine. I particularly noticed Louise Plowright trying to cuddle him. (It reminded me of the last time I saw Neil McDermott on stage, in The Water Babies – when he got hugged by another tall actress, also named Louise). I thought that the comic highlight of the number was Louise Plowright sliding across the stage clutching at Neil’s left ankle. Good though All Banged Up is, the number does not fit well into its position in the plot. How can you have a song about being starved of sex at a time like that? Some effort towards explaining what the number was doing there was made at its conclusion, with Neil McDermott’s prison officer saying “You ladies really should try to eat something” as if to suggest that the inappropriate number is the result of hunger. Plausible, I suppose. But it really does seem to borrow from those pre-Oklahoma! musicals, when anything went, irrespective of whether it was really appropriate to the plot.


Here the plot really does descend into completely unbelievable silliness. They hatch a plot to entrap Fenner. Yvonne makes a phone call to her husband to get some hidden camera equipment; while The Prisoners and Justine persuade Shell that if she helps them ensnare Fenner she can be The Baddest And The Best. Although an ensemble number, Nicole does star in it, it seems to suit her; just as the number seems to fit this weird musical comedy.


In solitary, dressed as a cowgirl, Shell seduces Fenner, First Lady. Both sing well, and, given their training, with surprising conviction. Though it possibly helps that they are both playing characters whom one can never be quite sure if they are telling the truth. Shell gets Fenner handcuffed to the bed, caught inflagrante on camera, and then she sets it alight. In front of some fiery drapes Nicole reprises The Baddest And The Best, it is very much her number.


The finale scene tidies up all the loose ends. The Number One reads out the results of the enquiry into Rachel Hicks’s death. Fenner will have to answer for it, just as soon as he gets out of hospital (all the prisoners seem disappointed he didn’t die). Shell is commended for her bravery under duress, that will help her parole hearing. Nikki and Helen finally declare their love for each other, but Helen says to wait until Nikki’s appeal succeeds. Yvonne arranges a firework display to take place for Denny’s twenty first birthday. The Prisoners are allowed into the yard for five minutes to watch; at which point we hear the sound of a helicopter, a rope ladder is dropped, and Yvonne makes her escape, taking Denny with her. The show ends with the assembled company (Yvonne and Denny are still hanging on the rope ladder) singing This Is My Life. A reasonable little song which gave most of them their own little moment in the spotlight. I particularly noticed Julie Jupp and Louise Plowright with the line about wanting to be with the kids on the beach.


All in all a rather odd musical. While Kath Gotts’s score does not have the quality of say Stephen Sondheim or Jason Carr. It is nevertheless quite pleasant, and in some places even catchy. It is hard to really assess a brand new score, having only just heard it for the first time. I certainly think it’s a lot better than Gerad Presgarvic, or Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg. I certainly hope that Kath Gotts’s continues to write for the musical theatre stage. I felt that the best number was All Banged Up. Maggie Norris’s direction seemed to be generally good, making the best of having to work with what she’d got. Certainly she seems to have allowed the power between the characters to go more or less where it wanted to, while trying to get the actors to deliver convincing characterisations. Unfortunately, I felt that the ‘book’ by Maureen Chadwick, Ann McManus, and, Guy Picot did not really do the score justice. I’ve seen pantomime’s with better books than this! (Well one panto, Snow White, at Poole last Christmas). The book for Bad Girls - The Musical was rather week. Yes it had a few decent lines, such as the one Shell delivered along the lines of “You provide the audience and I’ll provide the show”. But these were few and far between (Graeme Davies, Buddy De Sylva, Dorothy Fields, Herbert Fields, Moss Hart, Catherine Johnson, George S Kaufman, Edward Kemp, John Polihammer, John Weidman, or Victoria Wood these writers are not).  The plot had some interesting twists in it; but didn’t seem convincingly cohesive as a whole. For a start it took such a long time to make up its mind what sort of musical it was going to be. Perhaps the writers should stick to television drama.

                The acting is also rather variable. Most played their parts quite well, however some of them might have been better suited to their own parts if acting opposite different performers to their fellow castmates. This musical is very much an ensemble piece, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but to work well it needs the strengths of the different performers to be well matched, which isn’t always the case. Emma Bispham, Siubhan Harrison, and Tricia Deighton all provide satisfactory support, and remain very much in the background. Tricia has a nice little role for an older actress with a few good lines; while Siubhan does turn out to be a rather good dancer, especially in A-List. Meanwhile, as a prison officer Roger Brunton, Richard Costello was hardly noticeable, he seemed to be more some miscellaneous screw rather than a specific character. Not that this mattered in the least, and I think it might have been the most sensible thing to do with him. Michael N Harbour also had a small role. But he really made the most of it, which given his long standing experience one might expect. Dawn Hope was a decent supporting player, reasonable convincing, and sang decently in her solo (although I didn’t particularly care for the number). Rachel Izen (whom I had previously seen, but not really noticed, in Red Hot & Blue) acted well. I was less sure about her dancing. She can tap dance, but as her first tap number rather showed, Hal Fowler is a better dancer. But she was generally adequate and convincing; although the script is such that we never really know whether or not she know just what Fenner’s methods really are. If you are not familiar with the TV show, one might well think she knew what was going on. Amanda Posener seems to be generally up to the sort of standard one would expect from Mountview. She is well suited to the role of Denny and plays it quite well, especially given the confines of the script. Elaine Glover is generally good. She succeeds in creating a character whom the audience feels sympathy for; which really helps in trying to make the weak book into a plausible show. It was good to see Neil McDermott in a musical again. The part did not give him much scope as an actor, but it was totally different to anything I’ve seen him do before (I previously saw him play a Gondolier in The Gondoliers, and Tom The climbing boy in Jason Carr’s musical of The Water Babies). Obviously Shell is meant to be something of a starring role. Fortunately Nicole Faraday seems to be rather well suited to playing this thoroughly unpleasant character, whom one never quite knows whether to believe what she says. It is good to find Nicole cast in a role truly appropriate to her training. Speaking of which, I was quite surprised when I looked up Hal Fowler’s credits in another theatre programme, to learn where he was trained. Though I wonder where on earth he learnt to dance so well? He is actually the best actor I’ve ever seen out of GSA (and I thought Sion Lloyd did well in Avenue Q earlier in the week). Mind you the only two times I’ve seen Hal on stage he was playing rather posh somewhat smarmy characters. There is only one little difficulty with his portrayal of Fenner, and this could be as much the script as his acting. It is that initially, if you don’t know the TV series you think he is nice, there are no subtleties to suggest otherwise. So it is rather a shock to discover with his solo The Keys, that he is such a nasty piece of work. Hannah Waddingham plays one of the most challenging parts, and rises admirable to that challenge. She also sings rather well. She is the only performer in the company whose singing voice can almost match Louise Plowright’s for shear strength. Laura Rogers makes a very engaging likeable character out of G Wing Governor Helen Stewart. As an actress she is good at subtly, as one might expect given that she trained at RADA. She knows how to play to an audience, and wins us over very early on. She makes a very believable character, and brings a likeable personality to the role. Ellen O’Grady also acts pretty well, quite convincing despite having some of the most unbelievable parts of the book to deal with. Unfortunately although her singing is generally satisfactory, it lacks power, which becomes rather a problem when you’ve got performers like Louise Plowright trying to be one of her backing vocalists. Julie Jupp also gets a trifle swamped in Louise’s shadow. In her own solo, Sorry, Julie sings decently, and acts her number really well. She dances rather decently in A Life Of Grime. She makes a very good team-player, but as one half of a double act tends to end up, getting a little outshone, in her tall fellow-performer’s shadow. I get the impression script wise that she is supposed to be the slightly more dominant one in the partnership, but it doesn’t quite come out that way. As for Louise Plowright, well praise or criticism first? She does a great job with her part, what there is of it, but she seems to be rather miscast. In fact, she is one of trio of actresses (the other two being Ellen O’Grady and Julie Jupp) who all seem to not quite fit into their parts together. Individually there’s nothing wrong with putting anyone of these ladies in those roles. It’s just that collectively they don’t seem to quite fit together. I think that Ellen and Julie would be fine in their roles if they didn’t have to contend with having an actress with such a strong voice and commanding stage presence as Louise does, in her role. Similarly, I think that Louise would be fine in her role if the other two roles were taken by actresses whose strengths were more closely aligned with her own. I also think that the three of them would be fine together in a musical if they were playing different roles more suited to their collective abilities. The problem is that script wise the character of Julie Johnston seems to be the smallest part of the three, and yet its played by one of the most powerful performers. I always used to think that you just couldn’t put really strong performers in supporting roles. It was watching Louise Plowright’s performance as Donna The Dynamo for the first time (supported by Louise Gold and Lesley Nicol) in Mamma Mia, that I realised it is perfectly possible to put a strong performer in a supporting role, provided the performer they are supporting comes over strongly enough to at least match the strengths of their supporting players. If you don’t then the balance of power between the characters is liable to come out wrong for the storyline. I haven’t seen an imbalance quite like this one since Ian Marshall-Fisher’s Lost Musicals production of Of Thee I Sing ten years ago! And I never expected to find this occurring in a musical involving Louise Plowright. For I thought she had an unusual knack for helping to get the balance of power between characters just wherever it was supposed to be in a scene. But it did not seem to work so well this time. True she does try to use her talents to bring added strength to the ensemble, but ultimately she’s just got such a presence, plus her height, that one does rather notice her. Of course, an actress of her calibre would be capable of toning down her performance. But actually one wouldn’t want her to do that, because this show doesn’t have enough panache to put across such a weak book, therefore it needs any strength the performers can give it. And besides which, if she were to tone down her performance, she would not do her own considerable acting abilities justice, and they are poorly enough served by the confines of her role as it is. Ultimately she is just too good an actress for the part she is playing, at least given the rest of the line up. Nevertheless she puts an awful lot into the part, turning it into a truly convincing character. One couldn’t help noticing that whenever she was on stage, even as part of the ensemble, her character was always aware and reacting to whatever was going on, in a very convincing believable manner. Her accent is also worth noting, for once it was definitely not her usual northern tones. It sounded more South of England, working class London or Essex perhaps. That in itself was impressive, just to know that she can sustain a different accent throughout a whole show, it definitely fitted her character. She makes the most of the part, like the supertrouper professional that she is. As a character she never fails. It is purely the balance of power between the characters that doesn’t work, and that’s not her fault. I think she just deserves a better role, in a better show. She was an amazing Donna The Dynamo in Mamma Mia, but the sad truth is roles like that don’t come along very often. A few other notable Dynamo’s of that show have certainly had their share of making the best out of being mis-cast in legendary flops (including Louise Gold in Ziegfeld, and Vivien Parry in Which Witch), perhaps Ms Plowright has just done things the other way round.

                I cannot really see Bad Girls - The Musical working as a West End musical. Maybe I’ve been listening to too many episodes of Fabulous Flops. But I can’t help thinking that if this show went into the West End it would get a mauling from the critics. The book is so weak. If you look at the big hits in the West End, the things that run for absolutely ages, they tend to have very strong consistent books. (Think of Mamma Mia, or Mary Poppins for example – the former is a good example because people who think of it as just a “pop songs” are not as impressed, the reason it works is because it’s a strong book built around a good back catalogue of songs). Of course it could simply be that this is a type of musical we’ve not seen before. There have been many a good show that when it was very new people didn’t always understand the style, examples include: Oklahoma! West Side Story, and,  Side By Side By Sondheim. The style of Bad Girls – The Musical seems to be akin to a piece in a television telethon, or an entertainment for a television programme’s Christmas special, and that’s a concept which I am not sure if it really works extended into a stage show. However, it does make me wonder how many of the cast have experience of those sort of television specials? So would Bad Girls – The Musical attract a West End audience? I can’t really see it being the sort of thing people would go to see again and again. Nor can I really see it attracting the tourist trade at those West End prices. However, given the popularity of the television programme that it is based on, I think it might work on tour, playing a week here and there. Touring shows tend to have cheaper ticket prices, plus there’s the element of taking the show to the people, rather than people having to make the effort of travelling to the capital to see a show. I also think that Kath Gotts’s score might be worthy of a cast album, if nothing else to preserve it for posterity. And I hope that she continues to write for musicals, perhaps one day even in the West End. However, I don’t really see this as a big hit show. I see it more as an interesting idea of a musical. One to be done, forgotten about, and then many years hence dug out, talked about and perhaps even performed as a concert-staging of a forgotten curiosity, a bit like Grab Me A Gondola was. That said, as a musical theatre aficionado, I am glad to have seen it. Not least because the lumpy book made me realise just how important the book is. It’s an interesting piece, certainly, unusual concept; And I think it had a reasonable score. I am also glad to have seen Louise Plowright once again in a musical; even if (to adapt some of Kath Gotts’s song titles) this A-List actress shouldn’t be here in the grime of a supporting role to two performers who although good do not quite have her strengths, in a musical with a none-too-brilliant book. Still, that’s the way it is.




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