Bad Girls continues at the Union Theatre, London until 2 April.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
A group of women are in a fictional prison where one of the warders (Gareth Davies) is happy to confer privileges in return for sexual favours, while the governor (Tori Hargreaves) is an idealistic reformer trying, against the prevailing culture, to ensure respect for the prisoners and justice for everyone.
The book, by Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus, provides a powerful, often moving narrative and Kath Gotts’ lyrics are incisive. “A slut in a rut” is a memorable line. So is: “I want to feel the weight of a handsome hunk/lying on top of me in my bunk.”
Sarah Goggin is wan and terrified as the young newcomer, Rachel Hicks, who is preyed upon by Davies’ character. Davies is deceptively avuncular and chillingly ruthless, although he doesn’t really find his singing voice until Act II.
Ceili O’Connor is very strong as the broken lesbian Nikki Wade who ultimately finds strength, courage and a future in a piece which allows a satisfyingly positive ending. O’Connor is delightfully resonant and poignant on her low notes.
Sinead Long gives a sparky performance as Shell, the insolent cock of the walk on the wing who eventually becomes an unlikely moral focus.
The ensemble work is strong and almost everyone shines in the big scenes. Livvy Evans is good value as a religiously evangelical shoplifter, for example, and there’s an appealing rawness about Francine Rowan as an angry young woman.
The decision to use unamplified voices and to configure the Union Theatre into a traverse format gives this show a refreshing intimacy. Much of the music (Gotts), however, feels like a bolt on, especially in Act I. In places it is effectively just sung dialogue, which might as well be spoken, although it’s better integrated after the interval. And the three-piece band does a good job under Alex Bellamy’s direction.
The party on the wing and the riot are quite excitingly choreographed (by Jo Mcshane) and all the movement is slick (Will Keith directs). We get some enjoyable set pieces such as the ‘Life of Grime’ from Jayne Ashley and Catherine Digges, complete with mops, or ‘All Banged Up’ in which the same two – with Christine Holman – use sexual wile to discomfort Perry Meadowcroft as Justin Mattison.
The trouble with these – like the subplot in which Ashley’s character makes contact with her son – is that they add little to the main plot and mean that the show runs a hefty two hours and 40 minutes, which feels 20 minutes or so too long.