Since this is a first London run, as soon as I mentioned on Facebook I was going to Glasgow Girls, everyone asked: “What’s it like?”. A floodgate opened. It’s like Andrea Arnold directed Blood Brothers; likeViva Forever had a political plotline; like Calendar Girls with less leukaemia and more streetdance; like “Springburn Awakening”, if you know your Glasgow sink estates as well as you know your Wedekind.

In the late 1990s, the city of Glasgow opened its ill-maintained tower blocks to refugees fleeing war and persecutions in Europe and Africa, and by 2005 one child in eight at Drumchapel High School was an asylum seeker. After years of early rejection, the newcomers were fiercely protected by residents of the tenements against the dawn raids in which failed asylum applicants and their families – including children born in Scotland – were taken for detention or repatriation.

The Glaswegian stereotype is here assumed to glory in any opportunity for pitched battle with the authorities, as this musical tracks the progress of seven streetwise teenagers who led a campaign to bring this injustice to the Scottish Parliament’s notice. The narrative is rigorously partisan: police and border agents are portrayed as faceless thuggish automatons; politicians as typically inept and uncaring; and any parental questioning is brushed aside with a shrug or a song.

It’s impressively staged: in Merle Hensel’s austerely architectural design, the tenement stairwell forms a convincing backdrop to the story, whose song and dance certainly captured the imagination of the Stratford audience, many of whom were on their feet whooping and dancing at the end. Whether its future is as a surefire winner on the school play circuit or a West End run, however, is hard to guess.

There has been such a chorus of enthusiastic reviews for this production – people have said that the spirit of Joan Littlewood is alive again in Stratford East – that it’s hard to be an even partially dissenting voice. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s too one-sided a tabloid celebration of the girls’ campaign that doesn’t appeal to cynical hacks? Theatrically, it’s strong and immediate, and enthusiastically performed, but there is some amateurish and largely-inaudible rap, more needlessly sound-accented lighting cues than Cirque de Soleil and a lot of very predictable running-on-the-spot choreography. Joan would have put a stop to that.

High praise though, for the two actors playing all the adult characters – Callum Cuthbertson portrays the girls’ right-on left-wing folk-singing teacher with a deft touch of detachment and a brave stab at Elvis, but above all is the brilliance of Myra McFadyen doubling as a tough tenement grannie with a heart – and voice – of gold, and as the fey headmaster who subtly empowers the protest.

When I got home, there was a Newsnight special about asylum seekers in Greece and how the government fosters a campaign of popular disapproval and right-wing vigilantism. This is clearly a much bigger problem than this play can encompass.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 19th February 2013
Image © Robert Day

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.