Review: Glasgow Girls, Theatre Royal Stratford East

“Our story is mostly about photocopying”

Many a theatrical production lays claim to being unique but few can genuinely live up to that billing. Cora Bissett’s Glasgow Girls – playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East after an initial run at the Citizens in Glasgow – really is like nothing else you’ve seen before, a true-life story about a group of teenagers who fought for the rights of the children of asylum seekers in their city set to an eclectic score that incorporates electronic grime, Balkan music, reggae-dub, folk/rock and much more besides.

The show is based in Drumchapel, an archetypally grim Glaswegian estate of high-rises, where in 2005, a group of seven schoolgirls were awarded the “Best Public Campaign” at the Scottish Politician of the Year Awards. As an area where many asylum seeker families had been located while waiting for their claims to be processed, a wait of several years in some cases, groups of friends clustered together from varying nationalities and when one from this particular group – a Kosovo Roma girl called Agnesa – was snatched in a dawn raid and detained for deportation, their resulting campaign to have her released and returned gathered such momentum that elements of the immigration system were changed as a direct result.

And it is this remarkable journey that Bissett and book writer David Greig have alighted on. It’s a hugely significant thing that they achieved on a political level, but of just as much importance was the personal development in these young women as the enthusiastic political activism that took root in them spread to the community at large, building the kind of social conscience that ought to be the mark of any civilised society. And as revealed in the post-show discussion, this impact has been lasting as the real life women are now about to graduate to a range of socially aware professions (and indeed one declined to be involved in this show, hence the six rather than seven main characters). But though nominally a weighty subject, there’s a deftness of touch to the material, a strong vein of comedy to counterbalance the seriousness and of course as a musical of varying forms, it has the widest selection of songs at its disposal.

It seems only right that the score about such a multi-cultural group should embrace such diversity and the show admirably bucks convention at every turn. Bissett’s Celtic-tinged tunes rub shoulders with Sumati Bhardwaj’s reggae, more mainstream songs from the Kielty Brothers and the punchily strident urban oeuvre of Patricia Panther, who also stars in the show as a number of characters, often baddies. The constant shifts in style are something of an acquired taste but the energetic verve with which they are delivered is most persuasive. Amiera Darwish, Stephanie McGregor, Roanna Davidson and Amaka Okafor all impress as the girls who have made Glasgow their adoptive home and they’re matched beautifully by Joanne McGuinness and Dawn Sievewright as the Scots who form the rest of the group – Okafor and particularly Sievewright shining through a strong company.

The show’s main weakness, insofar as it has one, comes from the singularity of its focus. There is undoubtedly much joy from seeing the story through the exuberant eyes of its teenage protagonists, feeling the deepest lows just as keenly as the joyous highs, but there’s no other perspective on offer. The police are an amorphous body of riot-shielded menace; First Minister Jack McConnell’s ineffectual trip to the policymakers of Westminster dismissed as weak-willed; asylum is such a complex, multi-layered issue that it feels wrong not to acknowledge that, but Bissett and Greig should be commended for teasing out a simplicity in the narrative that is as strong-minded as the girls themselves.

The sprawling teenage enthusiasm of much of the productions may not be to everyone’s taste initially, but it really does have a seductive quality that is worth investigating and sticking with. And it fires strongly on all cylinders: MD Hilary Brooks presides over a classy band; Merle Hensel’s set of high-rise concrete looks dramatic, especially in the well-lit deportation scenes; and as a variety of adults in the story, Callum Cuthbertson and Myra McFadyen are huge value for money, McFadyen’s Noreen pretty much stealing the show as a fourth-wall breaking deadpan granny. Insightful and inspirational, Glasgow Girls really is a unique piece of British musical theatre. A little flawed perhaps but fearless with it and make no mistake, this is the best example of girl power on the London stage at the moment.

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Andrew Wilson

Programme cost: £1.75
Booking until 2nd March

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