Review: Girlfriends, Union Theatre

“I’ve left my job and my boyfriend called Bob”

The Howard Goodall season at the Union Theatre, soon to move to new premises, has been one of its more enterprising moves in recent times. Love Story and the dreaming both had their moments but the third piece in the trilogy – Girlfriends – feels like the weakest of the lot. Bronagh Lagan’s production can’t do much to disguise the reasons that the show was a commercial flop on its 1987 debut but also adds its own complications with a truly unnecessarily awkward staging choice – how this wasn’t picked up on earlier on is baffling.

The show itself suffers from promising one thing – looking at the experience of working women in the Second World War – and delivering another – the romantic travails of two of them. The company is even split 10 to 2, women to men, and yet the focus settles firmly on this pair of love stories to the severe detriment of many of the supporting characters who remain scarcely sketched caricatures. That three men collaborated on the book – Richard Curtis and John Retellack along with Goodall – might be part of the problem.

That this story is then told with such a physically narrow focus feels like a frustrating misjudgement. Nick Corrall’s design spreads long and wide against one side but Lagan and Iona Holland’s choreography are firmly centred in a small area which pays no attention to about half, if not more, of the audience. So it’s hard to pass judgement on what could have been excellent performances from Corinne Priest and Perry Lambert as the main women, and Catherine Mort and Catriana Sandison as two of their colleagues, since it rarely felt like we were being included.

Musically, the polyphonic harmonies sounded lovely and Freddie Taupner’s band has the customary high quality for this venue, but with the prevailing mood being one of frustration, I need to listen to the score again on my own terms to really appreciate at what stage of early development this shows Goodall at as the lyrics, as best I could make out, seemed to clunk more than click. But altogether a theatrical experience to forget and proof that directors need to sit in every seat in their theatre to really appreciate what they’re asking of their audiences.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 23rd November

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