Ye Old Rose & Crown Theatre Pub is in unlovely Walthamstow, a working class area of London few visitors make it to, but which has an appealing frankness. (One shop boasts a 4 metre-long red plastic sign reading ‘Cheap Booze’). Here above the rambling, shabby Victorian pub is an archetypal fringe venue; small stage, nice little bar, local audience. Clearly what they also have is a great director, because this is a knockout production.
‘Girlfriends’ concerns the experiences of the WW2 RAF girls who guide home bomber pilots, pack parachutes and handle menial tasks for the squadron. Or at least, it was. I first saw it at London’s Playhouse Theatre with Hazel O’Connor in the lead, but that version only ran a week. Howard Goodall is a brilliant composer in search of a book, and changed the play’s plot in the middle of its run. Back then it was a dark piece about bullying and black widows, the girls who date pilots who die, and the superstition that surrounds them when they date another pilot still with missions to fly. It ended with the lead pilot’s death.
Now Goodall has junked that plot entirely, replacing it with a love story. This almost works – if only he hadn’t turned the lead pilot into a smirking caricature cad. But it’s the women who make it sublime.
It’s a beautifully sung ensemble piece with excellent orchestrations for seven women and two men, filled with the kind of rich harmonics Goodall effortlessly produces.He’s moved away from songs in favour of a complex sound tapestry with re-emerging themes that he occasionally over-repeats. Although the show is slightly too long, it remains powerful, involving theatre.
The entire cast performs at West End standard, with Emma Manley and Harriet Dobby as standouts. At just £15 a ticket (and a short trip up the Victoria Line if it’s running) it’s a memorable night out – and still has a week left to run. Somewhere on this site is a sample track, too.