When I arrived at the Citizens Theatre for the preview performance of the new National Theatre of Scotland production Glasgow Girls, written by David Greig and directed by Cora Bissett, there was a real buzz about the place – the buzz you only get in anticipation of a musical. The NTS is proud of this piece, as the complimentary “I’m a Glasgow Girl” badges and vinyl records of the songs will testify. The tagline “A life-affirming new musical based on a true story” gives them a lot to live up to, but this is one of those times when you really feel you’re in for a treat. The set is impressive, depicting the bleak, striplit interior of a high rise; the casting is terrific and there’s a pure quality to the entire production. This is a blitz of sound and fury with an urgent and vital message, showing us Glasgow in an entirely new light, reflected in the eyes of its girls as they cling to each other and look out from the sixteenth floor.
The true story is one of a group of Drumchapel High School pupils – Roza, Agnesa, Ewelina, Amal, Jennifer and Emma – who campaign against the deportation of their asylum-seeking neighbours, supported by their local community whilst the headteacher turns a blind eye. As we meet these characters, alongside the quirky presence/absence of Toni Lee, we feel that we know them. Fulfilling Bissett’s desire to “treat people’s real lives with the utmost care and respect” – it’s as if they’ve been plucked from reality and installed in the world of a musical that laughs at itself. Greig seems to achieve expertise in any area to which he turns his hand – his lovely screeds of narration combining the matter-of-fact with the startlingly poetic, and here he masters politics. The result is, in Greig’s own words, “a surprisingly Glaswegian episode of the West Wing” where the dear green place is utterly encapsulated, and further laminated by the musical form. There’s such beauty in the cultural fusion. Burns’s To A Mouse is a particularly interesting choice, subtly highlighting the key themes of home and the need for a safe place, illustrated with the gorgeous simplicity of the girls’ whiteboard drawings.
Merged with all the Greig hallmarks as the unique experience of learning English in Glasgow plays out, are utterly inspiring monologues, moments of deep thought and insight. The phone call between the Glasgow girls and their recently arrested friend is movingly real, and there are fine examples of Peter Brook’s “rough and holy theatre” theory at points. Undoubtedly one of the saddest scenes is the one which gives us “The Home Office version of events”. Underlined later by the song ‘Cuff You’ – presenting a very negative impression of the police – the verdict they bring is that most of the asylum seekers who have by this point earned our sympathy, are in fact “at it”.
The attention to detail in this production is exemplary, and in true NTS style, full of surprises – however, as much as some of the added extras work, they aren’t necessary and could be seen as over ambitious. The sense of spontaneous improvisation written into the story goes a bit too far this time, and there are one or two technical miscommunications resulting in awkward discontinuity. Thankfully, the audience is very much on their side. The unwavering energy of the multitasking cast reflects the passion and fighting spirit of the real-life Glasgow girls. Patricia Panther was particularly great in her various supporting roles. In one particularly memorable scene, the girls take on caricatured politicians and we are confronted with the consequences of underestimating a mother when warm-hearted Noreen reminds us that the children at risk of the dawn raids, who pack suitcases every night before bed, are “Scotland’s weans now!”
We learn that bonds are stronger than border patrols. That everybody needs good neighbours. We learn the importance of picking your battles in a bid for survival as the contrasting fathers – both played by the same actor – tread the line towards every man for himself. When Jennifer – the personification of Glaswegian feistiness – crumbles, we cry with her. But there’s only one remedy for the slightly predictable pre-resolution apathy: a good kick up the backside from Noreen, who tells the girls “You’ve had your sad song – now you can change people’s minds!” And that they do. The change in Jennifer’s dad is a mountain moved in itself.
The Glasgow determination radiates from the hearts of every character, regardless of their background, proving once and for all that you can take the girls out of Glasgow, but you can’t take Glasgow out of the girls.
Glasgow Girls runs at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow until 17 November, transferring to Theatre Royal, Stratford East, 8 Feb – 2 March. For more information and tickets visit the National Theatre of Scotland at www.nationaltheatrescotland.com