Like Love Story, and to some extent, the musical adaptation of Bend It Like Beckham, this Howard Goodall musical, Girlfriends, has too many songs in a similar style, which made me tune out somewhat. The narrative is not always driven forward by the songs, and more often it is the spoken-word narrator (Group Captain Victoria Gosling OBE: a real scoop for the London Musical Theatre Orchestra in having an actual senior figurehead within the Royal Air Force telling the story about the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War) who explains a lot in a short space of time, before a single point is seized on and sung about in a musical number or two. Or even three.
I cannot fault the orchestra, led (as usual) by the effervescent Freddie Tapner, who was musical director for a production of Girlfriends at the Union Theatre in 2014, and much of the singing itself is pleasant to listen to. That is actually a problem in this case: the work of the WAAF is portrayed as difficult and unrelenting, and yet the songs are lush and beautiful. Perhaps the concert staging didn’t quite work for me either, and the production as a whole felt as static as the performers rooted to their designated spots on the stage.
I mean, there was some movement (and I don’t just mean standing and sitting dependent on whether a character was even in a scene or not) but not much – because the musical doesn’t really call for it. Fair enough, in a show about the struggles and challenges faced by members of the WAAF, but there is not much to distinguish between some of the women characters. This might have been intentional, inasmuch as they were all in it together and all that, but it meant the narrative as a whole became rather distant – and, dare I say it, cold.
The ‘girlfriends’ who I could recall as being distinct characters are Jasmine (Vikki Stone) who came close to deserting the WAAF because she was not given ‘compassionate leave’ following the death of her brother, and Woods (Lizzie Wofford), who presumably had a first name but because of her seniority within the WAAF was portrayed as an insensitive and heartless leader (and then as a snowflake when she changed her mind with regards to Jasmine). I warmed to Jasmine, even if I didn’t really warm to anyone else: she asks the sort of questions that ought to be asked in wartime and didn’t blindly swallow up the propaganda of the day.
Guy (Rob Houchen) didn’t come across as unlikeable as the character’s words suggest. The lyrics were saying that it’s a tough war and everyone is having a hard time, but somehow this wasn’t really conveyed in the pretty and neat costumes and the melodious tunes that are a pleasure to listen to, but do little, if anything, to portray the struggles of the characters, or of the era. As Groucho Marx put it, “I’ve have had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it."
London lad, loving life and all that it has to offer.