Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:
Denise Deegan’s tribute to 1920s adventures set in the sporty, spotty world of girls’ boarding schools went down a storm in the West End in the 1980s and has been revived regularly ever since. Part of the reason for that is that, at its heart, it’s a blank template. The basic story – of Daisy (Anna Shaffer), the first-ever scholarship girl to attend Grangewood, and who faces prejudice and bullying even as she begins to fit right in – is straightforward, conventional and more a collection of genre tropes than a pastiche in its own right.
What gives each production its unique strength, then, is the staging, casting and the ability to overlay the plot with lashings of humour. Park Theatre’s production largely succeeds on all fronts, largely due to its decision to cast in a colour and age-blind manner. With actors including Pauline McLynn and Shobna Gulati playing fourth form girls alongside younger actors who might more usually have been cast for the roles, the artificiality of the play’s structure is heightened and played with to great effect.
Playing out on a chalkboard-styled set designed by Libby Watson, most of the actors, save for Shaffer and McLynn, double up, playing classmates, teachers and wayward family members as required. Director Paulette Randall uses flourishes to suggest that the schoolgirls, who are supposedly putting on a play retelling Daisy’s arrival, are not the most professional in the world. Occasional flourishes of carefully choreographed incompetence will be recognisable to anyone familiar with Patrick Barlow’s comedic adaptation of The 39 Steps, or Mischief Theatre’s numerous West End comedies.
But this is no Play That Goes Wrong, with mishap piled upon mishap. Randall breaks the performance conceit only rarely, when a scene needs an extra boost of comedy. And with such a dry script, whose written humour is only in the absurdity to modern ears of dialogue which once captivated young girls who dreamed of Malory Towers, cast and director alike often need to work extra hard to keep up the laugh count.
And to be frank, hearing modern voices emulate the overly clipped English tones of 1920s schoolgirls shouldn’t be anywhere near as funny as this cast manages to accomplish. But each character is brought to vivid, sometimes surreal life with a consistency that ensures the parodic deliveries do not diminish character. Sybil, the utterly beastly bully who torments Daisy, is played by Gulati with the sort of prim, hyper-real upper class accent that is reminiscent of her dinnerladies mentor Victoria Wood, while Clare Perkins plays Sybil’s minion Monica with a deep tenor voice that can make even the occasional grunt seem like the perfectly delivered line.
Supporting roles from Melanie Fullbrook, Lucy Eaton and Freddie Hutchins flesh out a well-rounded cast. But while Shaffer’s Daisy – through no fault of the actor – is possibly a little too wet as the school’s newcomer, McLynn as her best friend Trixie is the absolute comedic and dramatic highlight.
Whether it’s having water bottle fights, midnight snacks or recreating a particularly brutal and suspenseful hockey match, it’s clear the actors are all having a blast and daring the audience not to join in. Deegan’s script may not be the sharpest, but this production succeeds in turning it into a 1920s Mean Girls – a ripping yarn that is simply spiffing.
Continues until 13 January 2018. Image: Jack Sain