Brian Ferguson: Glasgow Girls a show for our times

FOR a stage show that seemed to slip away from Scotland slightly under the radar when it was first staged, it was a pleasant surprise to discover almost every seat in the theatre was filled for the Saturday matinee of Glasgow Girls.
The 2012 cast of Glasgow Girls. Picture: Robert PerryThe 2012 cast of Glasgow Girls. Picture: Robert Perry
The 2012 cast of Glasgow Girls. Picture: Robert Perry

I think it is fair to say some critics were a bit lukewarm when the story of the seven Drumchapel High pupils who joined forces to take on the immigration system was brought to the stage of the Citizens’ Theatre almost 18 months ago.

And it was certainly a surprise to some when the musical, which involved some of Scotland’s leading theatre and music-makers, failed to earn a single nomination in the annual Scottish theatre awards.

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Yet after heading south to tour in London, the National Theatre of Scotland’s production ended up nominated for a UK Theatre Award.

While the show had undoubtedly been a box office hit on its debut in Glasgow, director Cora Bissett has admitted she felt it was better received in London.

The story of the Glasgow Girls – who famously took their campaign against the treatment of asylum seekers in Scotland to the doorstep of then first minister Jack McConnell – unfolded nine years ago. The Scottish Refugee Council credits the Glasgow Girls campaign with playing a crucial role in the UK government dropping its policy of detaining children for immigration purposes five years later.

Watching Glasgow Girls on stage for a second time, several things struck me: Firstly, the largely unsung achievement of creating a bona fide, all-singing, all-dancing Scottish musical about as firmly rooted modern times as it’s possible to achieve. With its refreshing lack of schmaltz and over-sentimentality, it is also far removed from the glitzy musicals that continue to draw huge audiences every weekend elsewhere in Glasgow and at the other end of the M8.

Glasgow Girls certainly shrinks away from the idea that there was any kind of fairytale ending for the campaign. That alone sets it apart from Sunshine on Leith, the other hit Scottish musical from the last decade which dabbled in politics.

There is also an inescapable feeling that Glasgow Girls is perhaps even more relevant to Scotland in 2014 than at any time since the dawn raids that shocked so many a decade ago. The questions it raises certainly suggest so.

Is Scotland a more tolerant nation than it was in 2005? Are asylum seekers made more welcome on the streets of our cities now than then? How do Scots really feel about issues of identity and nationalism? And how much faith do people have in their elected representatives as the nation prepares to vote on its future path?