Women’s prisons have become a rich mine for the acting world in recent times. The popularity of TV shows such as Orange is the New Black and Wentworth have explored the struggles and solidarities of life on the inside, and on the heels of this renewed interest comes Blak Yak Theatre Company’s latest offering, Bad Girls: The Musical, presented at Chrissie Parrott Arts. I should state at the outset that musical theatre is not my preferred medium, but the combination of gritty content, some well-known local performers and a celebrated director at the helm piqued my interest.
Set in a fictional English women’s prison, Bad Girls focuses on the leadership struggle between the entrenched, sleazy guard Jim Fenner (Tom Hutton), and the incoming wing governor Helen Stewart (a superb Cassie Skinner) who believes that the inmates deserve a better lot than they are currently receiving. After Fenner’s abuses of power go too far, Stewart’s position is thrown into disrepute and the prisoners revolt. It takes a team effort to sort out petty differences between crooks, remove the old guard from power, and ensure Helen stays in charge.
The direction and design of the show were pretty slick. Lorna Mackie, whose recent directing successes include Funny Business and Avenue Q, brought intelligence to the performance’s staging. Even small requisite actions, such as sweeping up feathers after a boa-filled number, were treated with respect and became moments that enriched the evening. With several short scenes, the ability to quickly switch between settings was a must. The set design by Michael McAllan and Adam Shuttleworth featured a single cell door on wheels that was moved fluently to establish different areas of the prison. Lighting and sound were both solid, although the levels of the musical accompaniment were sometimes out of kilter with the volume of the performers, making some lines and individual parts in songs difficult to hear.
The vocal prowess of the cast was exceptional, with no weak links in the singing roles. Cassie Skinner, Sarsi Grace (Shell Dockley), Joanna Tyler (Nikki Wade) and Caroline Perks (Yvonne Atkins) carried the bulk of the lead work capably, while the minor characters also punched well above their weight. Therese Cruise’s rendition of ‘Freedom Road’ proved a haunting start to Act 2, while Sam Warne as the chavvy Julie Saunders had the moment of the evening with her number ‘Sorry’. In the lone male singing role, Tom Hutton was able to delight in the comedic opportunities and general disturbing nature of the play’s villain. Voices blended beautifully, again revealing the strength of Perth’s community theatre scene.
However, as is often the challenge I face in enjoying musical theatre, the acting fell a little short of the mark. There were standouts – Helen Kerr found a range of believable mannerisms for her character Denny Blood, while Daniel Buckle (usually found on the Big Hoo-Haa stage) very nearly stole the show as the nervous, nerdy second-officer Justin Mattison. Lisa Skrypichayko committed fully to her supporting role, and Cassie Skinner’s Irish accent was as authentic as they come. But for too many of the cast, inconsistencies crept into accents and characters that prevented the audience from fully immersing themselves in the world of the play. It could be argued that the presentational nature of musical theatre is designed to disrupt the viewing, but to my mind, characters need to be convincing if we are to accept them breaking into song. Consistency becomes even more important, and when it is missing, it can make for a pretty hard sell.
The other significant challenge of this show came in the writing and, most notably, the score. For the most part, songs swung between bouncy show tunes and solemn odes, but these were sometimes poorly matched with the action. For example, ‘The Key’ – Fenner’s ode to the institutionalised power that enables him to sexually assault female inmates – was altogether too bright to carry the darkness of its message, and, because of this, the following action (the catalyst for the remainder of the play) felt forced. The piano accompaniment may have contributed to this. Other ‘Chekhov’s Guns’ didn’t go off – the possibility of an incriminating suicide note, or the threat of an inmate being found guilty for arson that simply fizzles. Ultimately, it felt like the writing was trying to hold too many storylines together, which created dialogue and action that felt rushed or inconsequential. To their credit, the performances often made the writing look good, but it’s hard to create clarity around a mixed message.
Nevertheless, Bad Girls: The Musical is a good night out, with strong vocal performances, a supportive ensemble, and some excellent moments. It contains a satisfying combination of laughs and touching scenes, and certainly enough talent. If the world of musicals is your friend, check it out. And if, like me, you’re just a little bit allergic to musical theatre, dose up on Claratyne and give it a crack – you might have fun despite yourself.
Blak Yak Theatre presents
Bad Girls: The Musical
book by Maureen Chadwick and Ann Mcmanus | music and lyrics by Kath Gotts
Director Lorna Mackie
Venue: Chrissie Parrott Arts | 4 Sussex St, Maylands WA
Dates: 28 July – 13 August 2016
Tickets: $25 – $23