Passion amongst the parachutes: Girlfriends at the Union Theatre

Saturday 1st November 2014, matinée

We are grateful to the Union Theatre for putting on a Howard Goodall ‘season’, a selection of three of his musicals, beginning with ‘Love Story’, followed by The Dreaming, and finally ‘Girlfriends’.  We eagerly anticipated this early work, Goodall’s second musical, written in collaboration with John Retallack and Richard Curtis.

Having focussed on men in ‘The Hired Man’, Goodall wanted to do something which would say more about women’s experience of war, and, inspired by Mary Lee Settle’s memoires of her time in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, he researched the subject and, along with Retallack and Curtis, created a musical set on an RAF base in Norfolk, exploring the emotional entanglements of the women and the men they supported.  The setting evokes the hothouse atmosphere of a community living in close quarters, where trivial events become magnified, and the horror of war is suppressed behind a facade of politeness.  The piece also explores the moral ambiguities of a ‘just’ war and the difficulties ordinary people faced in becoming part of the momentous operations of war.  The title is itself ironic, since it celebrates the vital role of women in the war, yet acknowledges the underlying feeling that they are still dependent on and subordinate to men, their contribution undervalued.

The story is told in vignettes, and we are introduced to a large cast of characters and situations – we hear about the women and their reasons for joining up, their triumphs and disappointments with the work they are doing, and their rivalries as they vie for the affections of the airmen, knowing they risk having their hearts broken.  The problem with this approach is that ultimately there is not much build up of dramatic tension, and although the storylines feel authentic and are sometimes refreshingly downbeat, it makes it hard to engage with the characters when they have little opportunity to grow and develop.

In this production, the pace of the story was also hampered by the direction, which allowed too much ‘dead time’ between the short scenes.  The choreography was at times obtrusive too, veering between being too literal and too expansive for the space, or becoming rather ‘interpretive’, which didn’t seem to fit with the style of the story either. The scenes seemed to work best when the action was continuous and then the focus was changed from character to character, as in the party scene where much of the drama came to a head, and the production might have benefited more from this style of flexible approach in such as small space.

As we never tire of saying of Goodall, the music makes it all worthwhile: full of rich melodies and harmonies, we would happily buy the cast album and listen to it all again, if such as thing was available (quite a surprise considering the original production contained rising stars such as Maria Friedman and Jenna Russell).  Again, we are reduced to a few clips on youtube and song samples courtesy of Faber.  The music is particularly strong on upbeat melodies, such as the cheerful ‘We Dance On’, which describes the experience of putting a brave face on everything while the war continues; the romantic moments are well served, with some delightful duets between the lovers, and there is some darker humour in songs such as ‘In the Messes and Clubs’, which cleverly describes the attempts of the pilots to deal with the extreme emotions they experience on every mission.  Overall, though, in terms of musical theatre there seems to be less of the emotional depth, range and sophistication of Goodall’s later works.

The excellent cast certainly had their moments, although here we must pause for a quick comment on the Union, and the lack of information on their website.  We are not routine programme-buyers – sometimes it’s nice to have a souvenir and more information, but we work on the assumption that we will always be able to find out about the cast online. In this case, we were glad that we scribbled down a few names from the pictures on the wall, as we were astonished to find no trace of the actors anywhere on the Union’s website.  What’s the big secret? We can only apologise to any of the cast we failed to note, but we particularly enjoyed Michael Rees as Gareth, the airman who thinks he’s a bit of a charmer with a corny joke for every occasion.  Tom Sterling, with a pleasant and pure voice, nicely portrayed the glamour and charm of airman Guy, whilst revealing his youth and inexperience as the mask slips.  Perry Lambert and Corrine Priest as friends and rivals in love Louise and Amy have strong voices and brought out the inner strength of the women struggling not to have their hearts broken, while Catherine Mort delivered the touching ‘The Chances Are’ with powerful dignity.

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