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INGENIOUSLY DRAMATISED AND STAGED

Print Version

WEST END GIRLS
Written by Ken Duncum
Based on the Bestselling book by Barbara Tate
Directed by David O’Donnell

at Circa One, Wellington
From 4 Aug 2012 to 1 Sep 2012

Reviewed by John Smythe, 6 Aug 2012


It is remarkable that this play, which sits happily amid the ‘best of British' fare we've come to expect within Circa seasons, is enjoying its world premiere in Wellington, having been adapted from UK writer/artist Barbara Tate's memoir by local playwright Ken Duncum.  

Twenty-two years after she had worked, aged 21, as a Soho prostitute's maid Tate completed a 160,000-word account of her experiences and observations, but shelved it when a family member objected, presumably fearing it would bring shame on them.  

Tate was 82 when she showed it to writing teacher Harry Bingham. With a colleague, he extracted and distilled the 70,000-word central story of the naïve virgin who escaped a loveless upbringing and the groping hands of a ceramics factory boss to get a job as a Soho barmaid, whence she was plucked by ‘working girl' Mae, who was in sudden need of a new ‘maid'. But Tate didn't live to see her story published (in July 2010) let alone become a best-seller.

Duncum read it in France, hot off the press, when he was the 2010 Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellow. Given he secured the exclusive rights to adapt West End Girls for stage performance (as reported in the Dominion Post), we can now expect it to be picked up in Britain and around the world. What a delight it will be to see the royalty traffic flowing in the opposite direction for a change.

Nothing about this adaptation betrays its origins as prose. Everything is revealed in present action. Having escaped, with her granddaughter, from an exhibition opening of her latest paintings, in high dudgeon at a trite comment made about them, an ageing Barbara finds herself back in Soho and this provokes her live action recollections.

What marks it as a particularly Kiwi adaptation is the way the five actors supporting the ‘Babs' and Mae story cover some 62 roles (of which just 15 are named in the programme) – a value-adding skill NZ actors excel at through economic necessity. As directed by David O'Donnell, they manifest countless stair-ascending and hip-thrusting customers; people in bars, the street and court; and provide ingeniously-created sound effects for a juke box and such idiosyncrasies as the swishing of used condoms in a waste-basket and the squealing of crabs being exterminated with Blue Unction.

Another clever device, involving the back-lighting of seemingly blank white canvases, allows Titian's ‘Sleeping Venus' and examples of what would become Tate's prolific output to appear at judicious moments during the play, and on a wall as we leave the auditorium (mostly marking the decades following her relatively brief but memorable sojourn in Soho).

Being a true story, it doesn't have the dramatic subtleties or twists and turns a writer of total fiction might have introduced, so the creative staging enriches the production with physical and visual interest. Andrew Foster's cleverly configured step-up set with mobile furniture and the afore-mentioned canvasses, lit by Marcus McShane, with authentic-looking costume designs by Jane Bookock (which avoid the immaculate fashion-parade trap) and sound designed by Gareth Hobbs conspire splendidly to evoke Barbara's memories.

That said, the central relationship between Babs and Mae certainly does have its ups, downs, twists and turns, as challenges, confrontations and resolutions punctuate their deep and loyal if sometimes fraught friendship.

As Barbara, Victoria Abbott shows yet again what an exciting new talent she is, combining deep-felt emotional integrity with a comprehensive physicality as she sheds decades to recapture the innocent abroad who grows through experience and discovery to become her own more worldly-wise woman.

While we do learn she was abandoned by her mother to be brought up by an unloving grandmother whose ‘thou shalt nots' repressed her as a child (for example she was not allowed out of the house on VE Day), I do feel it's a shame the script does not reveal more about Barbara's formative experiences. One book review quotes her memory of a violent father who carried her to an upstairs window, “strung a little noose of wire round my neck, and attached the other end to the top of the casement. I had to stand on tiptoe, because if I did not, the wire tightened round my throat and began to choke me.” But given Duncum thankfully avoids expository narration, I suppose he would have to take a lot of dramatic licence to stitch that back-story into the present action (e.g. through Babs' reaction to Mae's expanding into bondage and discipline).  

Jessica Robinson inhabits the role of Mae exquisitely. Her journey is from confident professional at the top of her game to emotionally dependent loser, exploited and demeaned by her ‘ponce', Tony. She captures each mood and moment with great authenticity then leads an increasingly speedy vocal rendition of the jazz classic ‘In The Mood' by way of depicting her marathon effort of ‘accommodating' over 150 clients in 36 hours thanks to performance-enhancing Purple Hearts.

It's a shame musical arranger Gareth Hobbs has not found a way of exploiting the signature ‘gag' of the instrumental versions of ‘In The Nood', where you think it's all over then it starts up again … and again. That would have been very apropos. The song is happily reprised as a full ensemble finale, to give the show a valid upbeat ending that avoids mention of Mae tragically losing her life in a fire, although the staging cleverly implies she has come back from ‘beyond' to shine once again.

What an inspired idea, though, to recreate the 1984 Pet Shop Boys synthpop hit ‘West End Girls' (and East End boys…) as a ukulele-accompanied musical hall number, delivered busker-style by the versatile Gavin Rutherford.

In contrast to a range of light and bright bit-parts – including half of the delightful ‘Hudson & Halls'-style duo who run the Cut Price Shop that sells bulk condoms (not listed in the programme but I think they were called Harold and Spencer), and the genial Magistrate who proves the law is an ass – Rutherford brings a compelling blend of romance, menace, thuggery and vulnerability to the Maltese ponce, Tony.

Paul Waggott's sketched-in roles include the other shopkeeper, a lascivious raincoat-wearer called ‘Pockets' and a Scottish mugger, and he captures our hearts with lovelorn Frank, the brothel equivalent of a Stage Door Johnny.

The titular Girls are a varied bunch who mostly get to show more than one side of their characters. Their gossip sessions add background colour and context to the play's fluidly staged series of scenes.

Heather O'Carroll's key role is Rita, a volatile mix of foul-mouthed, strident, up for a good time and kind-hearted friend when it matters.

Having flared briefly in a spectacular cat fight (arranged by Ricky Dey) as Mae's feisty maid Rabbits, and added social texture as a Policewoman, Bryony Skillington brings poignancy to the less-than-successful pro Hilda.

Hayley Sproull succinctly distils the 21st century London girl as Barbara's granddaughter Eve before deftly delineating a trio of prostitutes: hyped-up Benzi-Nell, cold-hearted Lulu the pill supplier, and Scottish Fiona. Plus she plays the piano and piano accordion.

Separating the first and second acts by a year is an astute dramaturgical decision that allows the wide-eyed discoveries of Barbara's first impressions to be superseded by her settled-in understanding of who is who and what is what. While resisting urgings to go on the game herself, Babs nevertheless sets high standards of professionalism in her allotted role, accommodating the wants and needs of Mae and her clients, until … Suffice to say there are limits.

Besides, her desire to paint is taking over. The animation of the easel she yearns for and finally acquires is but one of the many adroit theatrical devices that give us access to Barbara's subjective viewpoint while keeping the story humming along.

West End Girls is an ingeniously dramatised and staged adaptation which holds strong focus on its nucleus: the unlikely friendship between an unworldly virgin and a prostitute at the top of her game. It finally transcends their differences to reveal as much about what they – and all of us – have in common: a basic need for love and understanding in a diverse and sometimes dangerous world.

That all this has been achieved within a five-week rehearsal period, with just a two-day development workshop before that, is an even more astonishing achievement. In the UK or USA it would have had an out-of-town try-out and a week or more of in-town previews before its official world premiere. Here it hits the stage running well and I expect it will relax into top gear within a few days to offer an even smoother and more enjoyable ride over its dramatically undulating ground.  
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See also reviews by:
 Ewen Coleman (The Dominion Post);
 Lynn Freeman (Capital Times);

Comments

Corus posted 6 Aug 2012, 07:30 PM
 

There are only two possible explanations for these reviews. The world has gone mad; or the reviewers were drugged, bribed or threatened with knee-capping.

Sam Jackson posted 7 Aug 2012, 09:24 AM
 

You, of course, have seen the show, ‘Corus', and have a superior and unassailable view from your god-like pinnacle of perception. So what is stopping you putting it up here, in a comprehensively articulated and well-argued fashion? You haven't even stated an opinion, you have just dumped on conscientious critics yet again – critics who are brave enough to expose themselves to comment. Insults, however witty, are not useful comments.

Simon Bennett posted 7 Aug 2012, 09:49 AM / edited 7 Aug 2012, 12:00 AM
 

That's four possible explanations.

I wish I was able to see this show. Sounds fantastic.

John Smithey posted 7 Aug 2012, 03:27 PM / edited 7 Aug 2012, 12:00 AM
 
A New Zealand play that draws on our rich multicultural heritage from a New
Zealand perspective will always be very different from one that was
conceived and raised elsewhere then comes to visit.
We all accept that any play written by a New Zealand playwright qualifies as
a New Zealand play. And it does. We are all citizens of planet Earth
entitled to engage with whatever excites our creative passions.
New Zealand plays are original theatre works created by New Zealanders. A
survey of my reviews of original NZ plays that happen not to be set in NZ
and/or use no distinctively NZ 'voices' - meaning 'voices' literally, and
'distinctive' as in neither neutral nor belonging to another culture - will
note I celebrate them whole-heartedly for their various qualities. And I
agree that all are inevitably created from a Kiwi perspective, with an
undemonstrative Kiwi sensibility.
It is in retrospect that I note how large the proportion is of NZ-created
plays that are culturally non-specific or set elsewhere.
I think it is fair to ask: is a syndrome emerging here?
Is it totally accidental or do the programming policies of major theatres
and arts festivals have something to do with it? Is this the 21st century
version of 'cultural cringe', an inevitable consequence of globalisation or
merely an aberration?
The message appears to be that if you want the experts who assess NZ plays,
and/or select local content for festivals, to rate your play 'the best' you
need to set it elsewhere and/or include non-New Zealand characters.
It's not that I hunger for "New Zealand stories" as in stories about NZ or
being Kiwi. It's rather that I believe in the value of the authentic voice;
in the idea that distinction as difference fosters distinction as
excellence; in the oft-proved truism that it's the culturally specific story
that travels best (because a story 'hermetically sealed' in its own
environment is most likely to resonate with timeless and universal truths
about human existence).
Let me be absolutely clear that I do accept that any NZ playwright should
feel free to write a play about whatever they choose and still have it
regarded as a New Zealand play.
I just cannot help wondering whether playwrights who think their primary
purpose is to 'tell our own stories in our own voices' are beginning to
think there is no room for that sort of thing. Have we entered a new era of
cultural cringe or is there a better term for this phenomenon?
John Smythe posted 7 Aug 2012, 05:05 PM
 

It seems someone has gone to the trouble of stitching together a number of comments I have made in the past to create the above post under a fictitious name resembling mine. Fair enough, I suppose. The discussion is exercised extensively on the What makes New Zealand play? forum.

Ken Duncum's adaptation of West End Girls represents, as I see it, the grabbing of an opportunity upon which he certainly has the skill to capitalise. Good on him. Why not? (I would not so much regard it as a New Zealand play as very adept adaptation of a British story by a New Zealand playwright employing our special brand of creative Kiwi ingenuity.)

As for why someone like Duncum may be moving towards adaptation, first of The Great Gatsby and now of West End Girls, if anyone has any problem with this, we have only ourselves to blame. My anecdotal understanding is that Circa audiences were small for Picture Perfect (2006), Cherish (2003), Trick of the Light (2002), Flipside (2000; also an adaptation of sorts) – all critical successes, and often award-winning, that too many theatregoers chose to ignore.

I don't have the Circa figures but Waterloo Sunset at Downstage (2001), which involved Londoner ‘refugees' in Wellington, did 42.6% – published with his Blue Sky Boys and Johnny I'm Only Dancing in a collection called London Calling. See his  Playmarket page for the full play-list (which doesn't include his television drama credits).

Anywhere else in the world a playwright with Ken Duncum's track record would be wealthy and enjoying a steady stream of royalties from new productions of his many excellent plays both here and elsewhere.  I sincerely hope he cracks a lucrative market with this one and that it leads to international productions of his other plays.