Is it possible to turn any subject into a musical, and do it well? That's a really interesting question and one that's not easy to answer. The Monty Python team have managed to make huge amounts of money out of a bunch of dozy knights and invisible horses in 'Spamalot', and Disney seem able to make musicals from talking animals with the same sort of success. And, in general, musicals are in the 'in' genre - almost anything seems to succeed. So, what about a musical set in a women's prison?
'Bad Girls' was a TV series first aired in 1999 which lasted for more than 100 episodes over a period of 8 years. One Professor of Criminology describes the show as 'the best prison drama ever'. However, the holding of a Chair at a provincial university doesn't necessarily imply any knowledge of drama.
Of course, there have been other TV prison dramas - most notably, I suppose, 'Prisoner Cell Block H' which manged to make the tediously long journey from Australia complete with grey, cardboard-like sets. Still, it managed to acquire a cult following, at least among insomniacs.
This version of 'Bad Girls' emmanates from the West Yorkshire Playhouse based in Leeds (pronounced Leeeeeeds by one of its famous sons, Alan Bennett). Since that's in my native county, I would like to say they've done a sterling job with the musical, but I'm afraid I can't. Essentially, the show doesn't really know what it is or what it's trying to do, and I sensed that, like me, many members of the audience were confused.
A liberal prison governor - who looks like she's just popped in from a Vogue photo shoot - has designs on improving the lot of the inmates. She is particularly intent on assisting Nikki Wade, a rather stunning looking prisoner - and it's not very long before we find out what other designs she has. Nikki has a reputation among the prison staff as a trouble maker, yet she looks about as intimidating as a BBC newsreader just out of makeup. The other inmates range from old lags who've been inside for decades, to drug dealers who prey on new inmates. Half-way through the show a mobster's moll shows up, toting numerous miniature bottles of spirits and sporting a flick knife. Later, she manges to do a runner with the aid of a helicopter! Oh dear.
The main focus of the evening, though, is on the rather detestable chief warder, Mr Fenner, who uses his position for sexual gratification. He's also at loggerheads with the liberal governor, and when a newly arrived inmate commits suicide as a result of Fenner's sexual advances, he tries to usurp the governor's position to obtain career advancement.
'Bad Girls - The Musical' isn't a comedy in the same way that 'Spamalot' unashamedly is. It does have some humour, but the overall style isn't comedic. It deals with some gritty and sensitive issues - for example sexual exploitation of female prisoners, and the plight of mothers in prison and what happens to their children while they're incarcerated. Now all that would be fine, and might work very well even set to music and delivered through song. But the creative team have introduced some glitz, so that we break from the harsh prison environment by taking diversions into land staked-out long ago by Busby Berkeley as the cast move into high-kick, leggy dance routines. True, these could be dream sequences, but they just don't work and seem odd and out of place, leaving the audience rather bemused.
The ensemble cast buzz with energy, delivering professional performances and work well as a team. Some seem to have been in the original TV production. The singing is pretty good throughout, but the songs are hardly memorable. One song is entitled 'Banged-up without the bang'. I'll leave you to enjoy deciphering what that might mean.
There is a very effective prison riot which demonstrated for a fleeting few moments that this production could have been something else entirely. Had the production team stuck with gritty reality, they might have achieved something worthwhile and meaningful, whilst preserving the musical format.
West End theatres on a Friday evening are usually packed to the rafters - but not on this occasion. The audience was decidedly thin. In fact, we could all have crammed into a bus shelter without any trouble whatsoever. Those who were in attendance laughed at (more or less) the appropriate points and seemed to enjoy the show in spite of its weaknesses. Maybe they were devotees of the TV series or unwitting tourists with language problems. Either way, there was a kind reception come the curtain calls.
So, back to my original question - can you make a musical of almost anything? I think you probably can, but it very much depends on the nature of the subject matter and how it's treated. 'Bad Girls' had a chance to show that gritty reality can be hummable, but opted for the soft option, I think, in order to make it more palatable. What they actually achieved was a bit of musical nonsense that lacks a real sense of vision and clarity.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Offers authentic pleasure to those of us who enjoy serious issues camped up to melodrama level while plot-lines and characters scale the heights of absurdity." IAN SHUTTLEWORTH for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "The series may have, as an academic claims in the programme, astutely mixed entertainment with message; this stage musical neither achieves nor even attempts any such blend. " MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Though the piece is preposterous hokum, the show is put across with enormous zest." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "A hell of a lot of fun." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "An enjoyable piece of sentimental melodrama and even has a little bite in its dramatic dentures."