“You won’t get that out a book on prison procedure
When those suits get caught on the hook, that’s when they need ya”
Bad Girls ran for eight years on ITV, covering the whole gamut of women’s prison storylines from the sublime to the senseless, and now the women of HMP Larkhall live on in Bad Girls the Musical, written by original creators Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus with music and lyrics by Kath Gotts. Taking many of the characters and fashioning its own story from a range of plotlines across the lifetime of the show, Will Keith’s production for the Union makes for an effective translation from screen to stage.
Perhaps naturally, given the size of the 17-strong company and the number of introductions that thus need to be made (even for those familiar with the TV show), the main thrust of the story takes a little time to come into focus. The corrupt practices of prison officer Jim Fenner, fond of doling out privileges in return for sexual favours, eventually crystallises the motives of the diverse cast of inmates but there’s also the slow burning relationship between lifer Nikki and reformist governor Helen that adds to a book which may seem slight but is ultimately dramatically satisfying.
Bad Girls the Musical is Keith’s directorial debut but his familiarity with the Union (where he played in shows like HMS Pinafore) stands him in excellent stead. With designer Jess Phillips, he’s configured the Union in traverse which amplifies the immediacy of the piece and accompanied by some cracking choreography from Jo McShane, there’s an amazing vitality on stage. From the Julies’ comedy routine of mops and buckets in ’Life of Grime’ to the all-out glamfest of Yvonne Atkins’ arrival in A-List, there’s a real joie de vivre that’s impossible to resist.
Part of this comes from the real communal spirit of the show – Ceili O’Connor’s Nikki and Sinead Long’s Shell may be two of the larger parts (and both excellently portrayed) but both actresses are also often found in the dancing ensemble for other numbers, mucking in with the best of them. And part comes from the individual talent that shines from that ensemble – Imelda Warren-Green and Livvy Evans both emerge as stunning voices, Christine Holman exudes magnetic presence, and Gareth Davies’ Fenner works well as a sleazy showman equally at home in a soft show routine with Bodybag as he is fluffing himself up for something harder (and grimmer).
Kath Gotts’ songs have a perky quality to them and have a nicely egalitarian spread across the company, and they sound fresh as a button under Alex Bellamy’s musical direction, his band of three doing good work from their protective cage. Yes, you can poke holes in the plot, not least the inconsistent tone of the second act (they sing of being ‘The Baddest and the Best’ yet when Shell is actually bad, the others turn on her) and you should rightfully mourn the lack of Crazy Di but so much of Bad Girls the Musical is so irrepressibly enjoyable, it’s well worth doing time for.