Five Go Asylum Seeking
2019 sees the Abbey Theatre continuing in much the same vein as it ended 2018, with an imported, feel good, multicultural musical. This one directly addressing the refugee crisis. Yet if “Glasgow Girls” has something important to say, and raises some uncomfortable questions, not all its uncomfortable questions are about refugees.
Based on a true story, “Glasgow Girls” follows a group of teenage school girls, both Scottish nationals and non-nationals, living in Glasgow who campaign against one of their friends impending deportation and against the British government’s policy of detaining and deporting refugee children. Coming together to fight the good fight, “Glasgow Girls” highlights their never ending political struggle, and rise to fame, as they set about seeking fair treatment for asylum seekers.
Thematically, book by David Greig, along with compositions by director and composer, Cora Bissett, deliver some high octane politics which will surely thrill the converted. But they might not win all that many new converts. A clever rendering of Robert Burns poem To A Mouse offers a subtle, smart and effective metaphor, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Instead, “Glasgow Girls” take an oversimplified approach which, if it generates sympathy in places, leaves it feeling and looking like an end of school year musical written by Enid Blyton and directed by Frank Capra. If it honours the teenage spirit of the original young girl’s activism, it does so via a sort of Five Go Asylum Seeking Utopianism which doesn't quite ring true. One that simplifies and sentimentalises its narrative into a multicultural, all-inclusive, happy families Glasgow if only you’d leave us alone. Yet if contact theory, the idea that living with others from different cultures is all you really need to overcome intolerance, was the simple answer then an historically multicultural America wouldn’t be so divided. And let’s not start on Europe. Or Brexit.
Theatrically, “Glasgow Girls” is also likely to divide opinion. If it's always refreshing to see young teenagers energetically taking to the stage, some may wonder if the National Theatre was the proper stage for them to take to. If Bissett’s fast paced direction and well worked dance routines honour a youthful exuberance and idealism, a self-aware Brechtian meta-theatricality often feels forced and uneasy. As does a touring set and costumes, looking like leftovers from a low budget production of Stomp. Singing doesn't always hit the high notes and many of its fist pumping anthems are immediately forgettable, even if one or two do catch the attention. What redeems and elevates “Glasgow Girls” is its impressive young girl cast who deliver invested and infectious performances. A group which also includes a disarmingly engaging Callum Cuthbertson as Mr Girvan amongst its numbers and a beguiling Terry Neason as the battle crying Noreen who lends some down to earth Glaswegian to proceedings. No small feat as we don’t really see all that much of the real people involved. They often come in a distant second, looking like political positions with personality traits offering polarising polemics rather than functioning as people.Something its Home Office and nazi styled police routines make all too clear, offering a social media level interrogation of the issues.
No one should want families torn apart or sent to unsafe countries. Yet questions around safe return, how do we achieve better conditions for refugees, or how to deal with the hyper-ethnic change brought on by mass integration with a host society are never really addressed in any depth in “Glasgow Girls.” Issues which respected political writers like Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin argue need to be addressed if we’re to find a real, workable solution. For as Brexit and Trump have shown, the perceived impact of mass immigration by refugees has resulted in vast numbers making dangerous political choices, even knowing the likelihood of a severe economic backlash on themselves. Suggesting there's more going on than just hate and ignorance, even if it's easier to say otherwise.
In musicals you can always tag on a happy, hopeful ending. Yet if we’re not engaged in preaching to more than just the converted then perhaps Robert Burns will ring prophetically true;
‘An' forward, tho' I canna see, I guess an’ fear.’
A prospect many refugees know only too well.
“Glasgow Girls” conceived for the stage and directed by Cora Bissett, with book by David Greig, in an Abbey Theatre presentation with Raw Material in association with Regular Music runs at the Abbey Theatre until February 16.
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre.