Theatre review: The Glasgow Girls, King’s Theatre, Glasgow

Cora Bissett in front with the cast of Glasgow Girls, left to right: 'Patricia Panther, Stephanie McGregor, Kara Swinney, Sophia Lewis, Chaira Sparks , Shannon Swan and Aryana Ramikhalawon
Cora Bissett in front with the cast of Glasgow Girls, left to right: 'Patricia Panther, Stephanie McGregor, Kara Swinney, Sophia Lewis, Chaira Sparks , Shannon Swan and Aryana Ramikhalawon
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IT’S seven years since The Glasgow Girls first appeared at the Citizens’s Theatre in Glasgow; but in that long half-decade, the political landscape into which it tries to shine some light has only darkened further, and strengthened the poignancy of its cry for love and openness towards those seeking safety in an increasingly hostile world.

The Glasgow Girls, King’s Theatre, Glasgow ****

David Greig Rehearsal 'David Greig, Artistic Director of The Lyceum. ''Photo credit - Aly Wight.'Room Portrait''Photo credit - Aly Wight.

David Greig Rehearsal 'David Greig, Artistic Director of The Lyceum. ''Photo credit - Aly Wight.'Room Portrait''Photo credit - Aly Wight.

In the UK, of course, we have no physical wall against advancing groups of refugees and asylum seekers. We have, though, plenty of walls in the mind, reflected in our draconian and humiliating asylum system; and it was when the UK immigration authorities began to seize asylum-seeker families back in the early 2000s, and send them to detention centres under the threat of imminent deportation back to countries their children barely knew, that seven Drumchapel schoolgirls came together to create what soon became a famous campaign to get their asylum-seeker friends back to their Glasgow homes.

Cora Bissett’s musical – featuring songs in a global range of styles by Bissett herself, the Kielty Brothers, the rapper MC Soom T, and Patricia Panther, who also appears in the show – is the stage version of the Glasgow Girls’ story; and although it remains true to its mid-2000s setting, with Labour’s Jack McConnell still First Minister, and Brexit still a decade away, it maps out a familiar landscape of prejudice made flesh in ruthless and cruel official procedures, and of ordinary people fighting the system with the only weapons that have ever worked – decent human values, strong community solidarity across cultural and ethnic divisions, and an eye for the main chance when it comes to winning public sympathy.

In the years since it first appeared, Glasgow Girls has toured to London and around Scotland, scoring a colossal success on the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016; and now, it is back again, in a new version co-produced by Raw Material and Regular Music, and set to visit Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Inverness and Dublin over the next few weeks.

Despite its fame, Glasgow Girls remains in some ways a rough-edged show. In the effort to celebrate resistance to the mean-spirited mood of our times, it conjures up an image of the city that is often idealised, and embraces a simple, agitprop-inspired theatrical style, with plenty of caricature and comedy, that can look slightly out of place on the big stages it now occupies; it certainly challenges cultural assumptions about what an award-winning musical should look like, in thoroughly positive ways. At its best, though, it embodies with a thrilling, almost desperate energy the virtues of compassion and community it in which it believes, working them out through some superb songs, through Natasha Gilmore’s outstanding choreography, and through the passionate performances of the nine-strong cast, which features the great former Wildcat star Terry Neason as indomitable community campaigner Noreen, Callum Cuthbertson as the girls’ wonderful teacher Mr Girvan, and a superb ensemble of Sophia Lewis, Stephanie McGregor, Aryana Ramkhalawon, Chiara Sparkes, Shannon Swan and Kara Swinney as the girls.

Whether the show’s message can really succeed in changing minds, and in lifting hearts and spirits in such troubled times, remains an open question. In mustering the strength to try, though, Glasgow Girls reaches back into the great 7:84/Wildcat tradition of Scottish radical theatre, and out across a world full of people singing their pain, their need for a home, and their passion for freedom, in defiance of the threats they face; and the result is a show that never claims perfection, but is infinitely worth seeing, for the sheer boldness of its effort to remind us that resistance is possible, and that it is still worth believing in a better time, a better city, and a better world.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

King’s Theatre, Glasgow, final performance tomorrow; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, next week, 23-26 January; Perth Theatre 30 January until 3 February; and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 7-9 February