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August 13, 2012 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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Review – West End Girls

Written by Ken Duncum, directed by David O’Donnell

I knew nothing of Barbara Tate walking into West End Girls, which may be considered something of a handicap when it comes to casting a critical eye over a theatrical adaptation of her memoirs. My participation as audience member, at least, was not hindered by ignorance. West End Girls does not strenuously biographise but rather deftly moulds its source material into an enjoyable tale of unlikely companionship. The result is a fun night out which brings a world of intrigue to vibrant, dazzling life by virtue of accessible and immediately familiar characters.

To frame the story, Ken Duncum redeploys the technique found in his previous adaptation, The Great Gatsby: upon revisiting the location of significant events in their past, an aged protagonist falls into deep reminiscence, prompting a journey down the annals of time to revisit their younger self and a wildly different world. This time, our protagonist is artist and writer Barbara Tate, played dexterously and with charm by the very talented Victoria Abbot (keep an eye on her). Her younger self is Babs, maid to Mae, “The Queen of Soho”, and the world is the colourful interior of London’s sex industry in the 1940s. What ensues is a familiar story: a worldly mentor takes in a naive out-of- towner, whose innocence is weathered by a new world of excitement and danger, but whose impenetrable virtue eventually provides a lesson for the mentor. Duncum’s use of near-archetypal characters and story means that unfamiliarity with biographical details provides no hindrance to enjoyment; the principle characters of Babs and Mae make an immediate and likable impression, and their story may as well have no referents outside of the theatre. Whether the writing here is an over-simplification will have to be for devotees of the historical Barbara Tate, and readers of her book, to decide (and I wonder if British audiences will be more discerning in this sense).

The writer/director pairing of Ken Duncum and David O’Donnell, which encountered some speed-bumps in Gatsby, reaches a kind of symbiotic apotheosis here. The impeccably constructed but somewhat plain script is invigorated by the barefaced theatricality of O’Donnell’s direction. O’Donnell is a sucker for overtly theatrical devices (solar-powered show, anyone?) and here he lays them on thick. The primary action is constantly accompanied by foley sounds provided by the cast, often to hilarious effect—the death-cries of pubic crabs and the fap-fapping of a waste-paper basket brimming with used condoms are particular highlights. Mae’s business transactions are treated with a vaudevillian absurdity, complete with cartoonish thrusting and till sound-effects, and the rotation of a typical workday presents a veritable carousel of endearing London characters. The cast delights in the kind of school-boy humour on display here, the result being that West End Girls doesn’t hide any of the necessary details, whilst avoiding overdramatisation, sentimentalization and, thankfully, moralisation of the subject matter. Cleverly, these conventions aren’t just used as jokes, but provide poignant layering as the story delves into the shadier sides of Mae’s life.

Jessica Robinson as Mae is magnetic, presenting a mixture of wit and cavalier attitude that is the very stuff of great maverick heroes. The remaining cast inhabit more characters than can be recorded here, but all do great ensemble work, and can be credited with endowing this production with the vibrancy for which it is memorable. Paul Waggott is a standout, milking humour and charm from a number of minor roles, including a French anthropomorphic easel.

The second half is markedly lacking compared to the first. As the directorial gloss loses its novelty, the play shows itself to be slightly lacking in emotional substance. The dangers associated with Mae’s desperate attachment to work, money and her usurious partner, Tony (Gavin Rutherford) are not quite made harrowing enough to give Bab’s departure the sense of sacrifice it deserves. There is a wonderful moment where Bab’s easel, giving voice to her anxieties about artistic expression, adopts the metaphor of losing one’s virginity. Considering the show’s presentation of a normalised view of prostitution, the transference of anxieties about sexual taboo into the context of artistic endeavour is very clever. The show, I think, needs more of this stuff, and it could probably afford to ease off on the theatrical gadgetry to allow the actors a chance to more fully explore the deterioration of Babs and Mae’s relationship.

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Comments (2)

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  1. Paul Waggott says:

    Who is Paul Waggot?

  2. Hannah Banks says:

    Oh just take the compliment Waggot. It can be the French version of your name.

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