Saturday, 3 November 2018

REVIEW: Girlfriends at Bishopgate Institute

LTMO under the conductor Freddie Tapner have followed up their wonderful concert version of Camelot at the London Palladium in October with a three performance concert version of Howard Goodall's Girlfriends at the Bishopgate Institute, where they are the resident orchestra. If you missed it you can buy a cast recording CD soon. Unlike Camelot where so many of the songs are well known, the music of Girlfriends written in 1985 are not as familiar and listening to the CD would certainly have helped get into the concert quicker. However once the characters and their relationships are established, we settled back to enjoy the melodic tunes and fine performances of the star studded ensemble of singers.

Goodall based the story on one woman's memoirs of life in the Woman Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF); women who answered the call to join up as the men went to war. 150,000 signed up in 1941 and fulfilled a range of roles including packing the parachutes and air traffic controllers for the pilots. This is given extra poignancy by the concert narration of Group Captain Victoria Gosling, one of the highest ranking women in the RAF, who gives contextual background linked to the musical story line as well as recalling her own grandfather who was killed on his 40th mission. The story focuses on six of these women, how they adapted to the life and their relationships with the pilots. 

The most interesting character is Jasmine sung by Vikki Stone who expresses concern over the bombing raids on Germany after her own home town Glasgow is bombed and finds herself at odds with her fellow WAAF's and the stern Commanding Officer, Woods, played by Lizzie Wofford. In her solo song "Wake me o wake me" she powerfully and emotionally mourns the death of her brother in a convoy and then leads the company in "Flying up there" where she questions whether bombing ever achieves its aim and regrets that innocent people die.

Bronte Barbe, who was wonderful as Carole King in the Beautiful tour, plays Jane and her solo number "The Chances are" is one of the best songs of the first half. Natasha Barnes who took over from Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl in West End, has great fun as Sally especially in "a bit like Errol Flynn" with Jasmine, Lou and Amy and in "We dance on" with Gareth (Chris McGuigan). Lou (Lucie Jones, Elle in legally Blonde tour) and Amy (Lauren Samuels, Jules in Bend it like Beckham) are rivals for the attention of Guy (Rob Houchen).

However the concert is at its best when they sing together as a WAAF chorus as
in the opening number "Jump" when they join up and feel like they are treated like cattle and in the very strong Act 1 finale where they sing of the risks pilots take and the heart break that results. Act 2 opens with the excellent up beat song "Uniform" where they sing of bursting with pride and doing their bit but it not being what we dreamed of. They work well together, sound lovely and create the spirit of the time with a minimum of effort.

LTMO showcasing of Girlfriends was a very enjoyable concert and will produce a very listenable CD but more than that calls for a full stage revival where we can see the characters develop fully and appreciate the quality of Goodall's music and lyrics to the full effect.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls Row G
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