Music and Lyrics: Howard Goodall
Writers: Howard Goodall in collaboration with Richard Curtis and John Retallack
Director: Bronagh Lagan
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Howard Goodall’s musical first hit the West End in October 1987 with an opening night that coincided with the great hurricane, but it has not kicked up much of a storm since. However, this is the second London revival at a fringe venue in just over three years, perhaps indicating that it is much more suited to small productions than to the big stage.
Set in Britain during the early stages of World War II, the show centres on a group of young women from all social backgrounds and all regions of the country who join up to the WAAFs to play their part in the war effort only to find themselves folding parachutes, making tea for their male counterparts in the RAF and waiting anxiously for planes to return safely from their missions. Much of this follows a familiar path, to be exact Terence Rattigan’s Fare Path of which it sometimes feels a pale imitation, but the writers spice things up with a love triangle involving two best friends (Corrine Priest and Perry Lambert, both giving endearing performances) and a bomber pilot (Tom Sterling).
Surprisingly in view of the involvement of Richard Curtis with the original book from which Goodall’s current version has evolved, there is very little humour either in the script or the lyrics and it is not for lack of opportunities. When two male officers sing No! in reference to a WAAF’s refusal to to surrender her virtue, we wonder what Sondheim might have made of it, yet the song raises not so much as a smile here. However, there is sincerity in abundance and only very occasionally do the book and Goodall’s lyrics sound trite as they delve into the futility of war and its cost. Catriana Sandison gives a particularly strong dramatic performance as a grieving woman who is veering towards pacifism and desertion.
The score is full of simply structured melodies that are instantly catchy, but lacking in variety and unlikely to prove memorable. Sterling’s powerful voice stands out among solo singing performances that are somewhat patchy. However, Goodall’s music is suited perfectly to female chorus numbers, of which there are several, including rousing finales to both acts. It is worth the price of a ticket just to hear the harmonies created by the ten ladies in this company.
Bronagh Lagan’s production takes place on a blackened stage and is seen frequently either in half light or in the dark with spotlights on individual performers. This robs the show of any sense of time or place and also casts a gloom which makes it more difficult to seek out humour. Choreography by Iona Holland, although limited, works well and the five piece band, under the direction of Freddie Tapner provides an ideal accompaniment for the singers.
With musicals flourishing in fringe theatre, Girlfriends is the sort of small scale show that could be up for more regular revivals and, indeed, it provides a very pleasant way of spending a couple of hours or so. In this production, it is the lovely sound of the female chorus that keeps ringing in the ears long after the final bows have been taken.
Runs until 22nd November | PhotoJames Wallace