Glasgow Girls review: A self-aware musical urging solidarity through song

In this galvanising take on a true story about Scottish teenagers who stood up for an asylum-seeking friend, you have to park your cynicism to believe change is possible

Glasgow Girls: it could be unbearably earnest were it not for the Glaswegian duty to be gruffly unsentimental

Glasgow Girls: it could be unbearably earnest were it not for the Glaswegian duty to be gruffly unsentimental

 

GLASGOW GIRLS

Abbey Theatre, Dublin
★★★☆☆
When immigration officers kick down the door of a Glasgow flat, during a dawn raid, it is, perversely, because of good news. It is 2005, and Kosovo, still far from stable, has officially been deemed safe. Now a family of Roma asylum seekers, resident in Scotland for five years, will be repatriated against their will. The roots they have set down prove hard to unearth, though.

The event stirs seven school friends of the family’s 15-year-old daughter – some of them born outside the country, some born within, and all of them Scots – to band together in protest. “A bunch of girls writing letters for their friend,” one of them says sardonically. “Who would be interested in that?”

Everyone, they discover. Their campaign, assisted by bluff school staff and neighbours, spreads quickly through the media and, later, parliament, powered by anger, unity and optimism.

‘We’re at home in Glasgow, it’s really not that bad,’ goes an early chorus. ‘Parts of the city are pretty shitty, but at least it’s not Baghdad’

Cora Bissett’s 2012 stage work based on this true story, with a book by David Greig, is a galvanising and self-aware musical, urging solidarity through song. That could be an unbearably earnest exercise were it not for the Glaswegian duty to be gruffly unsentimental, even in rhyme. “We’re at home in Glasgow, it’s really not that bad,” goes an early chorus. “Parts of the city are pretty shitty, but at least it’s not Baghdad. ”

Bissett, who is the show’s director as well as creator, tends to wear her politics on her sleeve: like the scenes of a slouching lefty school teacher (Callum Cuthbertson) assisting the girls with their organising, the music is also a model of cultural exchange. Scottish folk cedes to ska, grime to world-music-infused pop.

Greig’s script is more wry. Noreen (a terrific Terry Neason), for instance, is as proudly working class as she is sceptical of theatrical escapism. “I didn’t really want to be in a musical,” she begins, steadily dismantling every conceit of the form, before delivering the show’s most unapologetically emotional belter. You can have your cake and eat it if you first extract the sugar.

One edgier strategy, presenting “the Home Office version of events” and, later, a menacingly authoritative number by immigration officers (both led by the tremendous vocalist Patricia Panther), doesn’t quite complicate the right-on assurances of the show so much as prove that the devil has the best tunes.

Does the show’s pluck resonate in a country whose own answer to asylum seekers has been the segregation of direct provision, and where an abject lack of compassion and cohabitation is symbolised in Roosky’s recent arson attacks? Some of the references here, particularly Scottish political lampoons, don’t travel easily. But an affecting description of one disbelieving mother and her child, deported as he rejoices in a Celtic victory, is universally persuasive.

You may bristle against the high-school-musical aesthetic of Raw Material’s stripped-down touring production. But that unadorned necessity is also presented as its virtue. Like the teenage campaigners who caught a country’s conscience, or the assured performers of this musical, you have to park your cynicism to believe that change is possible.

Runs until Saturday, February 16th

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