In recent years The Union Theatre has built a reputation for high quality revivals of rarely performed musicals, re-inventing shows that have often unfairly been labelled 'flops' in their original productions. This is true of their most recent revival, 'Bad Girls The Musical', which despite largely positive reviews ran for only three months at the West End's Garrick Theatre in 2007 after sadly failing to find an audience. Based upon the popular ITV prison drama series of the same name, Bad Girls seemed an unlikely subject for a musical then and after almost ten years of silence it seemed an even unlikelier prospect for a revival. It was with a mixture of surprise, excitement and trepidation that I made my way to the Union Theatre to see whether the ladies of Larkhall prison should indeed be let loose on theatreland again.
I should declare a special interest; Bad Girls changed my life. If any show was going to encourage me to dust the cobwebs off this blog it would be this one, so please forgive that my ramblings will be more retrospective than review.
When Bad Girls debuted on ITV in 1999, I had not even reached my teens and suffice to say it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. It soon became a weekly fixture in my household and I have distinct memories of sitting around the TV as a family, glued to the exploits of Nikki, Helen, Yvonne, Shell and co. When we first got the internet, I used to wind a wire right through the house to dial up to Bad Girls messageboards. I watched the DVDs almost constantly. If I'd had a bad or boring day, I knew I could always fire up the boxset, watch a favourite episode and all would be well with the world again. It was also giving me direction and I found myself increasingly drawn towards the law and criminal justice as people started talking to me about 'the future' and careers. I attended the Bad Girls convention in Manchester in 2006 (yes, this happened) and met some of the cast over the course of a weekend. I was so starstruck I could barely string a sentence together, but my wide grin on the photographs betrays what a brilliant time I had.
I had always loved theatre and musicals but living near the border of Scotland and without a local theatre nearby, I only got to see a show when on holiday somewhere else in the UK. When whisperings of the musical adaptation of Bad Girls first surfaced suffice to say I was desperate for it to become reality. I remember getting an email invite to the workshop at the New Players theatre in 2004 and sadly deleting it, knowing it would be impossible to get there what with it being all the way in That London. Plus I had a little thing called school to go to.
As the tv series continued, talk of the musical quietened and it was another two years before the premiere of 'Bad Girls The Musical' was announced at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. I successfully convinced my parents to drive to Leeds and although excited, was a bit concerned; what if I hated it? What if it was unrecognisable from the TV show? I mean, someone called Hannah Waddingham was playing Nikki and she was blonde! When everyone knew Nikki was brunette! Of course, the moment the superb Hannah Waddingham opened her mouth to sing I realised how utterly ridiculous my concerns had been. It was clear that show creators Maureen Chadwick and Ann McManus had crafted not just an excellent homage to the tv series, but a musical that was terrific fun in its own right. Kath Gotts compositions encompassed both catchy up-tempo showstoppers and beautiful, heartrending ballads. There were nods to the original TV series (Bobby's braised meatballs, Shell's apparent love of country and western) and it was a joy to see the characters I had already invested so much in brought to life in front of me. Not only did I love the show, but so did my parents and seemingly everyone in the theatre with it receiving a rapturous reception.
Fast forward another year to 2007 and despite the TV series having ended, 'Bad Girls The Musical' was transferring to the Garrick Theatre in the West End. I knew I had to see it, but London seemed so far away I didn't even know if it was possible. Eventually, during previews, my Mam and I were on our way with a nine hour coach journey there and back. That nine hour journey seemed like an eternity, but then suddenly we were standing in sunny Trafalgar Square. We looked at each other, not quite believing that we had made it and realising 'that wasn't so difficult after all'.
Looking back now, that moment was when everything changed. I didn't realise it at the time, but the world had suddenly opened up. And it was all thanks to Bad Girls.
I fell in love with the show all over again. There had been changes; song 'P-P-P-Please' had gone entirely, the two tier set was also no more. But it had gained in budget, polish and of course, the wonderful Helen Fraser was reprising her role her series role as Sylvia 'Bodybag' Hollamby, worth the trip alone for TV show fans. I went to the stage door for the first time in my life and discovered the talent I developed at the convention for going completely silent at the worst possible time was still unrivalled.
I was on holiday on press night but went to an internet cafe the following day and read the largely good reviews. Knowing absolutely nothing about West End theatre, I felt sure it would be a hit. It was a huge success in Leeds after all. Alas, I was wrong. It wasn't long before rumours started of it's early closure and lack of audiences. I felt gutted, knowing how long it had taken to get there and how hard everyone had worked. Also, knowing that once it was over, Bad Girls was well and truly gone for good.
Sadly, 'Bad Girls The Musical' was given two weeks notice and the last night was set as the 17th November 2007. I was determined to go and give the cast and show a good send off. Two weeks later, I was back in London having this time discovered a much quicker mode of transport known as a 'train'. I went to both the matinee and evening performances, the first and so far still the only time I have ever done the same show twice in one day. With lots of other fans having also made the journey, there was a great atmosphere and the cast put their heart and soul into every word. The final two performances were both filmed and a DVD was later released, on which I am a shadowy figure visible at curtain call in my one and only claim to fame; a moment that is not even so much 'blink-and-you-miss-it' as 'pause-and-point-out'. I loitered near Kath Gotts and Maggie Norris in the foyer but failed to pluck up the courage to say hello. Despite this, I went to the stage door again and must have managed to speak occasionally this time as I came away with autographs and joy-filled photographs where I am grinning from ear to ear.
And that was it. Bad Girls, both the TV show and the musical was officially over. Talk of a national tour surfaced but then petered out and life carried on. Only now, it was different. Now if I wanted to go somewhere, I could go. If I wanted to see a show, I would go and see it. My lifelong love of theatre had been well and truly ignited and gone from being an occasional hobby to a full blown passion.
In the ten years since 'Bad Girls The Musical' premiered, so much has changed. I've graduated twice (in criminal justice naturally), lived in five different cities, met so many people and seen so many shows. Without that initial push to get to London I might never have discovered just how easy it was to travel and it is almost frightening to think how much I would have missed out on. My theatregoing has reached almost obsessional levels; my record is 69 shows in 2014, a record I am hopefully on course to beat this year.
My years as a Bad Girls superfan had been consigned to history. I still looked out for the cast, both TV and theatre, on screen and on stage. You wouldn't believe how many one-off episodes of Casualty, Holby City and Doctors I have watched. I have lots of brilliant memories and look back with great fondness on these years but I always knew that they were over.
Enter The Union Theatre, 2016. It came as a complete shock to read that 'Bad Girls The Musical' was to be revived and just like that, the memories came flooding back and I had the exact same feelings of excitement and trepidation as I did all those years ago. What if it wasn't the same? I've seen so many shows since, what if I didnt like it anymore? Either way, I couldn't resist finding out for myself and so in slight disbelief I found myself on the way back to London to see the ladies of Larkhall once again.
As soon as the excellent three-piece band struck their first note, I couldn't help but smile. I discovered that the whole thing had been lingering in the recesses of my brain all of these years and that I remembered every single one of Kath Gotts clever, witty, lyrics. In the intimate space at the Union, director Will Keith strips back the show with minimal set and the focus firmly on the characters. The heart and humour of the show still shines through and to my slight surprise, it hasn't dated at all. The music and lyrics are as fresh and funny as they always were. The forbidden love story is timeless.
I can see some flaws clearer now and can understand how without the benefit of years worth of television backstory new audience members may find some of the characters cliched or predictable. However, ultimately I was struck by how much fun the musical still is and how it still appeals to such a varied audience. It was a joy to see a packed theatre enjoying the show all of these years later, whether it be wiping away tears of laughter at the still genuinely hilarious 'Life of Grime' and 'All Banged Up' or rooting for the lesbian love story that was truly groundbreaking when first on television and unfortunately still rarely seen on stage or screen. Plus Fenner and Bodybag dancing will never not be funny.
Bad Girls has always given 'breaks' to virtually unknown performers and generally resisted 'star casting'. Therefore it was great to see the next generation of young performers bring these characters to life and the fun they are having doing so shines through. I was particularly impressed by Ceili O'Connor's Nikki Wade and Sinead Long's Shell Dockley, both of whom are vocally excellent and put across each characters strength and vulnerabilities perfectly. Jo McShane's new choreography is vibrant and energetic and the ensemble numbers are staged with flair.
A lot may have changed for me personally in the last decade, but what clearly hasn't changed is Bad Girls ability to show its audience a good time. It was lovely to leave listening to audience members talk about how much they enjoyed it and I am thrilled to be able to see a professional production on a London stage once more.
After writing this trip down memory lane there seems to be only one thing left to say. Thank you. Thank you to everyone that has worked on the television series and musical over the years. Thank you to Maureen Chadwick, Ann McManus, Eileen Gallagher and Brian Park for creating this show and these characters. Thank you to Kath Gotts for her ingenious music and lyrics and Maggie Norris for her initial work in making this musical a reality. Thank you to all of the cast members who have graced the screen and stage over the years and to the new generation of performers at the Union joining the Bad Girls family. Thank you to Sasha Regan and all at the Union for reviving the show and bringing it to a whole new audience. I know there are others for whom the show has had a far more profound impact; on their careers, their relationships, their identity.
As I write, Elaine Paige has just played 'The Future is Bright' to close her Radio 2 show. I've been listening to her show for years and I never thought I'd see the day Bad Girls would be gracing the airwaves. Now it has come however, I am full of pride at what this little show has achieved and full of gratitude for everything it has brought in to my life.
Now, get thee to the Union Theatre, because if all of that doesn't make you want to see the show I don't know what will.
For more information on Bad Girls The Musical or to buy the CD and/or DVD go here
And to book for Bad Girls The Musical at the Union Theatre go here