“Bad Girls: The Musical” Breaks in to the West End

 
 

The final bow belonged to Sally Dexter, a West End veteran who plays Yvonne Atkins, a character Chadwick described as "a supernatural force." She certainly enters with a bang, glibly telling Bodybag she has "just popped in for a quick four years," before doling out drinks stashed in her overcoat to prisoners who are soon envisioning an A-list party behind bars:

I’m gonna be the party queen
Giving it up all night
Cruising and schmoozing with the best.
Take a look around this exclusive scene
So much flesh to be pressed
Oh yes

Yvonne’s and the other prisoners’ fantasies are immediately contrasted with Fenner’s sinister ruminations on the "mutual service" he provides to inmates like Dockley and Hicks:

Frankly it’s just irresponsible if
I don’t try
To provide
What they lack
Here inside
Everyone’s up for the ride, so
Who could accuse me
If they choose to use me?

The juxtaposition of the serious and the ridiculous — often within the same song or scene — has been an integral part of Bad Girls from its inception. It’s a style that many poison-penned British critics have widely panned as indecision. The Independent, for instance, declared that the tone of the musical "is wildly inconsistent: spoof Broadway razzle-dazzle cheek-by-jowl with unbelievably banal romantic ballads; the tongue-in-cheek smack up against the hand-on-heart." 

Chadwick has always insisted their style is, in fact, true to the characters and the prison environment. "That kind of emotional multitasking is a reflection of what life’s like in a women’s prison," she explained. "There’s a great camaraderie among women in prison, and that spirit, where things can go from tragic to hilarious, is part of the reality."

"It’s what women are like," added Gotts, "but it’s a little different in the musical [compared to the TV show]. There’s a higher percentage of comedy in the musical, obviously, but the combination is still there. It’s probably a reverse ratio, whereas [on TV] you had seriousness leveled by humor, we now have humor leveled by seriousness."

Something else may be behind the criticism leveled at both the stage and screen versions of Bad Girls: a snobbish, sexist assumption that these women writers and creators have accidentally mashed together the show’s contrasting styles.

Gotts said: "There’s always been something with Bad Girls because it’s about working-class women — women! — and it’s by women writers, and it blends comedy and serious … people very often don’t get the fact that’s intentional. They think — do the writers know? Yes, of course we bloody do! People don’t trust the fact that we do know it does different things. It’s not something we haven’t spotted."

It’s difficult to miss the contrasting styles in Act II, which opens with Crystal’s touching lament, "Freedom Road," and segues into the aforementioned tap-dancing Bodybag during a fantasy number with Fenner called "The Future Is Bright." That laugh-out-loud showstopper (think top-hats, canes and inmates dressed as showgirls) is abruptly followed by an emotional phone call from Julie S. to her son — a scene Jones admitted brought tears to her eyes.

I’ll be there like a mother should be
So you can follow your dreams
Yes, things will get better
Wait and see
We’ll work it now
Just you and me …
‘Cos I don’t ever, ever want to be —
So sorry …

Again.

Of course, in the midst of all these other pairings — Bodybag and Fenner, Shell and Denny, the two Julies — there is another pair in the musical, an iconic couple named Nikki and Helen that lesbians around the world have identified with and cared about, often fanatically and sometimes obsessively, for more than half a decade.

Nikki and Helen share precious little stage time in the musical. Within its 2.5-hour confines, the show suggests only the bare outline of their story, touching on their forbidden attraction and shared disgust with the prison system.

Gotts explained: "It’s not all about those characters because although for us obviously we were very much keen on the Helen and Nikki relationship — for an awful lot of people and an awful lot of our ordinary Bad Girls fans, it was something great and something they took on board and rooted for, but that’s not why they were watching. It was one piece of the ensemble."

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