Joining the remembrance of Britain at war, the World War II musical Girlfriends transforms the intimate space at the Union Theatre into a Bomber Command air base in Norfolk in the darkest days of the war. Revealing the lives of the young women who joined Britain’s fight against the Nazis, we are invited into the intrigues, fears and friendships of everyday life in the war.
Howard Goodall’s score is alluring, simple and sensuous and with the small band it feels like an old school late jazz night, supported by the atmospheric lighting and space. Many of the songs are catchy and rich with flavour, and chorus moments especially are beautifully sung with intensity, drive and passion. The women’s harmonies are haunting and captivating in the musical’s high moments, but with most soloists the charm fades and the vocals are sung with such technical focus that they sound too polished and restrained to really hit us where it hurts and affects. Most of the women sound very alike, and some off-key towards the end of the show; however, Corrine Priest’s Amy has great charisma and a truthful connection to the music and story – she manages to reach a deeper layer and stands out amongst the ensemble with her beautiful voice. There are few great moments between characters but some slightly overacted and clumsy, and at times it seems that the performers exert more emotion than really listening to each other and the relationships between characters.
The lyrics seem at times clunky and too modern for the setting of the performance, but it’s saved by sweet ballads and powerful ensemble moments. Movement sequences are sometimes powerful, sometimes without proper effort and purpose, but designer Nik Corrall’s clever scenic imagery flips the coin and intrigues. The set is simplistic with a brilliant multiple use of furniture, and especially the sequence with torches moving in darkness and a white sheet providing shadow-play for a love scene is exciting.
Girlfriends has some great ideas and an interesting design concept, but as a story it never really affects us as its circular narrative feels repetitive and without any real climax or revelation. The music has a charm of its own but fails with the lyrics to really relate to the gravity of the time and the horrors of World War II and it seems to be a piece that perhaps would thrive more as a play. If cuts were made and the direction clearer it could evolve into something tender and effective. With a focus on the narrative and why the story of these women needs to be told, Girlfriends could become a show that moves us.
Girlfriends is playing at the Union Theatre until 22 November. For more information and tickets, see the Union Theatre website. Photo by James Wallace.