REVIEW: Girlfriends, Bishopsgate Institute ✭✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Howard Goodall’s musical Girlfriends performed by the London Musical Theatre Orchestra at the Bishopsgate Institute.

Girlfriends review London Musical Theatre Orchestra
The cast of Girlfriends. Photo: Nick Rutter

London Musical Theatre Orchestra
Bishopsgate Institute
2nd November 2018
4 Stars

It was a great treat to hear this little-known musical by one of the most interesting contemporary British exponents of the genre, Howard Goodall, given in the splendid setting of the Great Hall of this venerable building – a kind of ‘community centre for The City’, with a star-quality cast and the magnificent LMTO providing lush accompaniment in Simon Nathan’s new orchestrations (based on the composer’s original scoring).  Goodall is responsible for music and lyrics here, but the small print on the front of the programme reminds us that they are ‘From the book by Howard Goodall, Richard Curtis and John Retallack’, and there, perhaps, lies the key to the conundrum posed by this work: how can a score of such fineness, such quality, have failed to grip the public’s imagination?  Now, having seen this show given twice, in extremely different circumstances, I think the answer may reside in the many-stranded story that never quite finds a centre or focal point.  As composer, and also as lyricist, Goodall always seems to be driving towards one, pushing ever forwards with his restless musical imagination, and producing some quite astonishing and delicious moments along the way, but his libretto ultimately never seems to permit him to come to ground in a way that will enable him to anchor the work in his, and our, heart.

Girlfriends Howard Girlfriend
Photo: Nick Rutter

The dialogue scenes were largely ditched here, in Bronagh Lagan’s cool and disciplined management of the platform interactions, with some useful and often touching linking narrative provided instead by the august presence of Group Captain Victoria Gosling.  This meant that the majority of the dramatic power of the work, which is to be found in its second act, was taken away from us.  In place of that, however, we got some splendidly subtle and supple merging in and out of musical numbers, lit expertly and brilliantly by Mike Robertson, and projected with near faultless success (one or two mikes refused to behave themselves, not that that held back the considerable power and authority of the voices on the rostrum) in Avgoustos Psillas’ sound design.  The orchestra was impeccably projected at all times, and just as well, since the performance I attended was being recorded: put your name down via the LMTO’s website for a CD, you will want to listen to this work repeatedly, I assure you.

In the cast of WRAAFs, doing their bit for the war effort against Nazi aggression, it was a joy to hear Lucie Jones, as Lou, in fine voice: she is maturing magnificently, with masterfully clean articulation and an apparent conversational ease in expression that are always fascinating.  Lauren Samuels pleased as the contrastingly passionate and desperate Amy, making much of her lower-register passages that allowed a highly emotive contralto to pierce every heart in the room.  Bronte Barbe, as Jane, was similarly strong-willed and vocally exact.  Natasha Barnes proved her worth with some delightfully agile and bell-like high register singing, and Vikki Stone pulled out the emotional stops with the role of Jasmine.  As the voice of career airwoman, NCO Woods, Lizzie Wofford’s stern and resolute performance reminded us of all the things a certain woman in Number 10 Downing Street recently promised an expectant nation.  And, as the blokes who fly the planes (and, according to the story, love them more than anything or anyone else), Rob Houchen was a real matinee idol as Guy, with a bright tenor sent apparently from heaven, and Chris McGuigan an earthier, more robust, Gareth: with all our attention on their musical activity, their roles strongly reminded me of Ferrando and Guglielmo in ‘Cosi’.  Lisa Bridge, Charlotte Clitherow and Tara Divina put into their ensemble parts the weight of an entire chorus.

Girlfriends London Musical Theatre Orchestra
Photo: Nick Rutter

One of the great strengths of the LMTO is the way it continues to work with a pool of artists, allowing them to develop a considerable range and expertise in this kind of presentation.  Quite where that might be leading Freddie Tapner’s superb outfit it is difficult to say, but he is onto something here that just keeps growing.  As does his artistry.  Tonight, as conductor he drew out of the band some of the most startling and arresting sounds I have ever heard from a musical theatre, or indeed any kind of orchestra: there were occasions, many of them, when time stood still; we were held in the grip of something magical and wonderful and felt, intensely, the power of art taking us into an entirely different state of being.  On the other hand, his management of the ensemble, his grasp of the epic sweep of this wartime narrative, his pacing of the evening and his ability to find, over and over again, the moments of elevated sensation in its expertly judged mixture of personal simplicity and marvelous complexity, enabling him to find, for every individual voice heard, a sympathy and fellow-feeling that showed us humanity itself at its most glorious best.


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