After making a big impression with last year’s flapper musical “THE ‘IT’ GIRL”, DramaNatrix Productions returns with something completely different: BAD GIRLS: THE MUSICAL. They’ve taken what might have seemed an unlikely choice – a musical based on a hit British women-in-prison TV dramedy that’s been off the air for a decade and little-seen locally – but have leveraged it into a highly engaging evening of theatre. Familiarity with the source material is certainly not required to enjoy the show (though the thick-sliced British working-class accents and slang make this a bit like “Coronation Street goes to prison,” so “Corrie” fans should feel particularly at home). And with the popularity of “Orange is the New Black”, the choice of BAD GIRLS, which is similarly gritty, raunchy, funny and tragic by turns, is a shrewd one.
The story follows a cross-section of both inmates and guards at the fictional Larkhill prison for women. Like the series it’s based on, there’s a large ensemble cast. But some key stories and characters soon emerge: Rachel Hicks (a vulnerably believable Kirsten Shale), the new inmate, terrified and bewildered by prison life; Nikki Wade (tough but vulnerable Florence Reiher), doing time for the murder of her girlfriend’s rapist; Jim Fenner, Principal Officer or head guard of the facility (a highly effective Francis Boyle), who maintains a kindly facade while brutally using the powerless inmates as his personal harem; and in charge of it all, though precariously so as things move along, the new Governor (or warden), Helen Stewart – determined to treat her charges humanely and make Larkhill a modern, and model, prison. Along the way, a romantic attraction develops between Governor Stewart and Nikki Wade, adding to the complications.
From the opening number, “I Shouldn’t Be Here”, it becomes clear that this is not quite the campy, guilty pleasure one might imagine. Most of the inmates have an engaging backstory and all of them, even the callous and hard-edged glamourpuss Shell Dockley, eventually earn our empathy. The duo of Julie Johnston and Julie Saunders (Natalie Schreiber and Charlotte Wright) make for a comic team that always grabs our attention – and the latter’s phone call to her estranged son is a heart-tugging highlight.
The venue of Renegade Studios is a perfect one for this show. I had the pleasure of performing myself in this gritty, warehouse-like space in GEE WILLIKERS, SPACE! and it was good to be back in the old barn again. However, it seems at first that we are in for a grim and grey two hours of prison misery – how will they break this up, let alone make things more colourful? The answer comes with the arrival of Yvonne Atkins (the dynamic Stephanie Liatopoulos) – a gangster’s moll sent up for conspiracy to commit murder. Turns out her real talents are a dangerous ability to dazzle, sparkle and wisecrack! The appearance of this larger-than-life personality kicks the show to a whole new level. And when she tosses colourful, sequined togs to all her fellow inmates and launches into her razzle-dazzle number, “A-List”, it’s a true showstopper and a welcome shift into classic musical-theatre territory.
I mentioned raunchy – and the show delivers this quality in spades, with verbal and visual double-entendres and frank talk galore. Your ears – or your cheeks – may get red, but given the setting, I’d have been surprised and disappointed at anything less! The, er, climax of all this has to be “All Banged Up (and No Bang)”, wherein the ladies bemoan their sexual frustration due to the absence of men. (It culminates in the three leads leaping onto each other for a stylized release of all that tension!)
Amid the humour and drama, a serious core story of tragedy and revenge develops, until we are rooting for the villainous Fenner to get his just desserts and for the crusading Governor Stewart to be vindicated.
The British accents are generally strong – I was certainly convinced I’d landed across the pond. This is surely due in large part to Emma Greenhalgh, who besides portraying Senior Officer (and helpmate to Fenner) Sylvia Hollumby, is an accomplished British accent coach.
The score is consistently tuneful and catchy, with clever, well-turned lyrics, and a suitably 90’s pop vibe. The band, led by returning Musical Director Jeremy Hoffman, provides a solid backing, including some fine trumpeting by Erik Engholm.
I’d say the verdict is in – BAD GIRLS: THE MUSICAL is guilty of being a spicy and raunchy yet laugh- and drama-filled evening of theatre with catchy tunes and memorable characters. You won’t regret doing some time with these characters!