21 November 2014

Girlfriends at the Union Theatre was a very musical musical

The first two shows in the Howard Goodall season at the Union Theatre, the dreaming and Love Story, were very lovely and so I made sure that I got to see the final show, Girlfriends.

Not unusually (sadly) the best that my careful planning could do was the final Friday evening of the run. At least the planning was good enough to get me a seat for the show which sold out soon afterwards.

I was able to work in London that day and that was a big help. I can get back to London from Reading in time for evening performances but that is fraught with risks (delayed trains etc.) and allows little time for food. The people in the pasty shop on Reading Station are starting to recognise me. So it was nice to be able to hop on a 63 bus which took me straight from Kings Cross to Southwark Station.

My plan was to dive into the nearest pub to get some food (and a beer!) but the nearest ones were several people deep outside and looked busier than the average rush hour tube inside. Slightly worried I walked away from the station along Union Street toward the theatre and was delighted to find The Union Jack opposite. It was busy but there was enough space to get inside and I managed to get a table towards the back. The food was excellent, well price and delivered with great care. I'll be back.

Having got used to how the Union Theatre works, I collected my ticket from the box office when it opened at 6:30pm before going to the pub. There was a short queue already but I was able to secure ticket number 10 which meant that I would be in the first group let in. Job done.

Entering the Union Theatre is rather like entering Narnia from a wardrobe and it always takes a moment or two to make sense of the layout after entering from the darkness. This time the stage was set up almost traditionally with all the seats arranged in three rows along the left-hand side. I was first in and eagerly grabbed the middle seat in the front row.

Girlfriends, as the poster honestly suggested, was the story of a group of women in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during WWII. This premise made for an unusual musical with ten female voices and only two men (pilots). These were used to good effect and there was a lot of group singing throughout the show.

There was also a lot of group movement, like squad bashing, and the choreography was a defining feature of the show. This came to a delightful head in a duet between one of the girls and a pilot that was a neat mix of dancing and acting (while singing), i.e. the dance helped to tell the story rather than just being there for decoration.

That story was a fairly simple one of an assortment of young women thrown together, for different reasons, during the war and of two young men who faced the high possibility of death every time they took to the skies. The women reacted and adjusted differently to the situation and there were several running plot lines about their personal lives, such as the Scottish woman who was desperate to go home when she heard about the bombing of Glasgow.

The simple plot left space for the music and movement, space which they gleefully filled. Good music does not need a plot, as Tristan und Isolde proves. There is always a balance between the various components of a musical or opera but that does not mean that they all need to have the same weight, only that the total weight is enough to satisfy the intellect and the soul. Girlfriends got it right.

One thing that I did find a little hard to get used to was that all the women wore identical uniforms and they all had identical 40's hairstyles so it was hard for me to tell some of them apart! I caught myself looking for distinguishing features in hands and legs.

The music was the, by then, familiar Howard Goodall sound with lots of catchy well-structured tunes that were repeated in snatches as themes to the story and also to improve their familiarity. It's a simple trick and it worked (again).

While there were clearly, and expectedly, some musical similarities between the three shows they proved to be a colourful combination; Girlfriends had a large group of women, Love Story was about one couple and the dreaming had a large and diverse cast of characters. That variety helped to make the Howard Goodall Season the success that it was.

Girlfriends was a fitting finale to the excellent season that was only let down by being so short! I was completely unaware of Howard Goodall's musicals beforehand but now I will make more of an effort to seek them out.

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