Lewis Baird, Contributing Critic - United Kingdom
“Glasgow Girls” used to be a lesser known musical which was not within the mainstream eye, but since it’s 2016 Edinburgh Fringe appearance, and follow up tour, there has been a lot of talk about the musical based on a true story. Finally, the production is back on tour, and after it being five years since I saw the 2nd run of the show at the Citizens theatre in Glasgow, I thought it was time I revisited the production to see how it has aged. The tour, luckily, stopped off at one of my favourite theatres, the King’s in Edinburgh, so I popped along to see it in Capital theatre’s old girl of Leven street.
The story of “Glasgow Girls” follows six girls, who go to high school in Drumchapel, four of whom are asylum seekers (Roza, Ewelina, Amal and Agnesa). When Agnesa doesn’t turn up for school one day, her friends start to worry. It turns out that border police raided Agnesa’s family’s home during the middle of the night, bundled them into a bus, took then 400 miles south, into a detainment centre, in England, and they were now waiting there to be deported. This was all because the government believed that the region Agnesa was from, was safe again, however, they were wrong. The remaining 5 friends get together and become the Glasgow Girls, a movement, protesting about the removal of innocent asylum seekers, within the UK.
This is an ensemble cast. Many of the actresses/actors, all embody different characters, they all work seamlessly together to hit the achievement of driving the fast-paced drama. Callum Cuthbertson embodied all the male characters (apart from one), within this production, and he does so effortlessly, there are clear separations between them all. Callum’s lighthearted approach to most of the characters, means that the audience relate to the humanity, and definitely the natural humour presented. The only note would be that at points there were clear drops in energy while performing his final solo number, which may have made the standard of performance for that song dip, however, apart from that, I could not fault his performance. Sophia Lewis as Roza, supplied us some of the tensest and climactic scenes within the production, as the audience was almost at a catatonic state of tension as the house lights came up for the interval due to how invested we were to her character. The performance of Roza’s real journey was enlightening and at points distressing to watch because of how realistic the portrayal was.
Stephanie McGregor is no stranger to this musical, she is the “OG”, if you will excuse my slang. She is an original cast member of “Glasgow Girls”. I saw Stephanie portray Ewelina five years ago and I can remember how powerful the speech to Jack McConnell was the first time, and still five years on, her performance of that devastation and anger hit me just as hard. Terry Neason supplies humour, warmth, diverse acting, stunning vocal talent and emotion as Noreen, this portrayal was a firm highlight of the production for myself, especially her performance of “It’s No A Wean’s Choice” Patricia Panther returns as an ensemble member and as a composer, her ability to change character is clearly strong, but her portrayal of the seedy female border police officer is a highlight of the brutality shown to the immigrants within this story. And Patricia’s passion while singing her own lyrics and embracing that character is what makes it even more real.
Aryana Ramkhalawon, supplies a very true and realistic portrayal of Amal, the clear emotion of desperation for her family to understand they need to be strong was clear, and that she, herself, was being strong for her friends. Chiara Sparkes gives us a devastating portrayal of a girl who has had her confidence and feeling of home broken by the government, the characters journey was heartbreaking for the audience to watch, as we could see from Chiara’s performance, the affect her family’s detainment had on her. Shannon Swan as Jennifer gives a great portrayal of a Glaswegian teen, who is strong and is trying to get over some of the bigot comments from the older generation, to show that her friends mean well with their presence within Scotland. Kara Swinney does well in taking on the character of Emma, however, the real power was in her portrayal of Roza’s mother, the song was stunningly sombre in the performance, her vocal technique, supplying the south eastern vocal technique perfectly, with such emotion. It really was a very apt performance.
Laura Jane Wilkie supplied the fiddle for us, live on stage, she was almost a device to be used as background music and obviously for the actual music numbers, however, it also seemed as though the fiddle was very much the control of emotion musically. As there was so much diversity and range in what kind of emotion or scene was supplied or supported by the fiddle. I believe she performed brilliantly.
David Greig writes the book for this musical, he translates the story to stage in a very stylized way. There are definitely sections of dialogue which maybe fictional, however, you do question whether it is verbatim, due to how real the characters words seem. There is definitely a Brechtian stylization present within the writing in this production. Everything is stripped back, most of the characters know this is a musical, and address the audience directly, there is some humour delivered in that, but also some unfiltered poignancy which works well to deliver the political statement to the audience.
Cora Bissett, well what can you say? She is one of the leading directors within Scottish theatre right now. Her vision is clear, she doesn’t want a big flashy musical which is just there mainly to entertain and deliver a message on the side. It is clear that this piece of theatre tells a story, with the political statement fueling it, then she has added in music to tell the story which does supply enjoyment, and uplifts the audience, but isn’t filtered purely to make the music catchier. Which is how it should be! Instead she collaborates pieces of our music culture into others from around the world, and the payoff is outstanding. She collaborated with Hilary Brooks and Michael “Mikey J” Asante as Musical Arrangers, Gavin Whitworth as Musical Director, plus Patricia Panther, MC SoomT and Kielty Brothers as composers. This brings a wide range to this musical. There are a few songs which sound very similar even though they endeavor to be separate from one another, but apart from that the music in this musical, is sound, especially for something which focuses on a relevant true story. Cora also used space efficiently, everything on stage was all the actors needed, and it didn’t feel too stripped back either. Jessica Brettle and Merle Hensle supplied set/costume, the set was a children’s park climbing frame, attached to a balcony, which had stairs attached had room to perform below the balcony. The only additional set was really the plastic chairs and board for class. The costume was mainly school uniforms and business clothing. But, the parents from outside Scotland, clearly had more outsourced clothing, which worked perfectly.
The lighting was designed by Lizzie Powell and sound design was by Garry Boyle and Fergus O’Hare. They both worked harmoniously together, especially when the loud bangs were made even more threatening with the large strobe beneath the balcony. The sound also worked very affectively with the voices played out for the recordings and the phone calls. The lighting added energy visually to the piece supplying perfect lighting for mood in scenes, and also a good blue wash to signify the very regular rain we have in Scotland.
All in all, this stripped back, touring production of Glasgow Girls is just as good as the production I seen five years ago. And with the way Brexit negotiations are going, and Scotland struggling to find a voice, this musical is very relevant to the times our current EU Nationals may have to face ahead. This musical delivers a very powerful statement, with a great cast supplying real characters, apart from a few beige pieces of music, this musical also very much entertains and inspires the audience. Cora Bissett has once again been able to revive this musical to much success, and delight among the re-visiting audience members.
Find out information about this production and tour below:
Also! Look out for the video review for Glasgow Girls on OnStage Blog’s youtube channel.