The Girls Of Slender Means – The Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Adrian Ross

Writer: Muriel Spark

Adaptor: Gabriel Quigley

Director: Roxana Silbert

There’s a poignant scene towards the end of this production which demonstrates that the acoustics of the theatre are sound enough to support actors speaking their lines, rather than shouting them.

That being the case, you wonder why the rest of the show is so needlessly loud. There’s a strong sense that the young women featured in this adaptation of Muriel Spark’s warmly evocative novella are talking over each other, and that’s the reason they’re raising their voices.

Yet they aren’t. They may be competing with each other in various ways – for attention, consideration, love – but they are taking turns to speak. Therefore the whole noise could be dialled down and better controlled. It’s not necessary to shout in order to convey youthful energy and zest, which is partly what the play explores.

If you can forgive such a shortcoming, this is a charming and engaging piece. It’s not easy to render the kind of caustic and convincing observations Spark makes about her characters in purely theatrical terms, as a raft of thoughtful content threatens to evaporate. However, Gabriel Quigley has made an excellent job of the adaptation, delivering a script that’s pacy and witty, while finding space for plenty of apt period detail.

The girls of the title live in a London boarding house, established to support young single women who are working away from their families. The action is set towards the end of the Second World War and its austere aftermath, with rationing a frequent topic of conversation. All the nice people, we’re told, are poor. And the girls muck in, sharing inadequate supplies of soap and perfume, and even the one good party dress they have between them.

Quigley and director Roxana Silbert have put a lot of effort into differentiating the five girls, so this is a solid ensemble work that also, to a certain extent, tells individual stories. That may seem an obvious aim, but it’s hard to get the balance right with limited stage time, and they do. There is a discernible lead character who guides us through the story, but Jane (Molly Vevers) doesn’t dominate.

Neither, rather pleasingly, does the only male character, Nicholas Farringdon (Seamus Dillane), a serviceman struggling to reinvent himself on Civvy Street as a poet and anarchist, who falls in love with the institution as much as any of the individual girls, the others being Selina (Julia Brown), Joanna (Molly McGrath), Anne (Amy Kennedy) and Pauline (Shannon Watson).

In one inspired scene, other men at a dance are represented by mannequins on casters; we hear only the girls’ halves of the conversations, but there are clear inferences of the remainder. This is really funny and very effective.

The creation of a milieu is probably what Spark was aiming at with her slender book, and this comes across well in the show. Ingenious stage furniture by designer Jessica Worrall enables different rooms to be suggested, and activities to be depicted, without the need to build entire sets.

Flying in a row of office lights helps to show the girls at work. A flown-in backdrop of green foliage is less successful at suggesting Kensington Gardens, though you could argue that the flatness of some of the backgrounds has the effect of focusing our attention on the actors, who all deserve it.

Runs until 4 May 2024 | Image: Mihaela Bodlovic

The Reviews Hub Score

Charming but shouty

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