Glasgow Girls at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh brings one of the most important issues of modern times to stage – the ever emotive issue of asylum seekers and the seemingly impossible attempt to properly address an issue that has no one single solution.
Glasgow Girls, conceived for the stage and directed by Cora Bissett and book by David Greig has already achieved notable success with an Edinburgh Fringe sell-out in 2016 and Winner: Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award. The production, based on the real life events of asylum seeker families in Glasgow and their children, has obviously touched the hearts and minds of many people and this is one show that is taking on a life of its own and spreading its story far wider than anyone could probably have imagined in the 2016 Fringe run.
This production is, for me, at times a bit of an odd one as it does present a very simplistic and one-sided view of an issue so wide and vast that its complexity could fill volumes of books, never mind a simple theatre review. That perhaps is its charm and success too as, although there are many political issues raised here, to fall into the trap of interpreting this story from whatever side of the political viewpoint you happen to have would be a mistake and dilute this story. The power of this production is that it concentrates itself on ordinary human beings, not on nationalities or political points of view, and every person in this story has their own story to tell, their own reason for eventually seeking asylum in the UK (even though Glasgow may be their end destination here). Also, with a focus on the true innocents of any situation like this, families and children, we have real people to care about here as the UK Border Force enforces government policies and forced re-location of individuals back to their original homelands that they now consider safe for them to return to; a brutal policy, so brutally enforced that a work such as this simply had to come into creation to give a voice to those who so often have none and find themselves as little more than pawns upon a chess-board being played by people and events far outside their ability to influence in any way.
I missed the Fringe run of this show and, to be honest, my first thoughts when seeing this title at the time were of “The Glasgow Girls” at The Glasgow School of Art. This is perhaps appropriate as the original Glasgow Girls were in their own way fighting for their freedoms in their own time. That almost inborn and instinctive rebellion of the ordinary people of Glasgow to stand up to authority and be counted whenever they feel injustice being forced upon them (think the tanks on the streets in 1919 and the Clyde shipyard workers for example) is as much a part of this story as anything else. Here, the ordinary people where the asylum families were living had made the newcomers one of their own, and no one was going to get away with taking one of their own away without a fight. Here too, and importantly, it was young people that first started to organise themselves into a movement that had to be heard, and so often this is the generation that sees so clearly what older generations either do not want to see, or want to look the other way from.
Glasgow Girls is a musical, a good one, but not a great one, but it is very effective as it does cleverly use music and words to tell this story and it is also one of the few productions that I have seen in many years to use Rap Music properly (as I understand it anyhow), that is to actually have something powerful to say about an issue and not just as it is so often used, a diluted stereotype to appeal to a younger audience. This is Rap Music as it should be, and its use with more traditional styles of music makes an interesting musical balance.
Set wise, this is one of the simplest sets that I have seen in a long time, and it obviously owes much to its Fringe origins. Thankfully, the success of this story has not inspired the producers and design team to go out and spend a lot of money on elaborate sets as this story simply does not need it. This is theatre at its simplest and at its best, theatre that relies on nothing more than a powerful story that engages its audience and hopefully leaves many leaving the theatre with so many questions that they now want answered.
Simply set in a school, our main cast of school-girls and one very special teacher make this a production that many younger people can easily identify with. It is also a production that relies heavily on a relatively young cast bearing much of the weight of the performance success, and there were no weak links in this team on stage tonight
Chiara Sparkes - Agnesa
Sophia Lewis - Roza
Stephanie McGregor - Ewelina
Shannon Swan - Jennifer
Kara Swinney - Emma
Aryana Ramkhalawon - Amal
Laura Jane Wilkie - Musician – Fiddle
Patricia Panther - Ensemble/Composer
A big mention has to go to Terry Neason as local organiser of resistance to the deportations, Noreen, and Callum Cuthbertson as that very special teacher Mr Girvan.
Watching this production unfold, it is hard to imagine the sheer terror that asylum seekers must feel as terror is so often the reason that they have fled their homelands for safety elsewhere, and now that terror is back as no one who does not have official residency status knows when The Border Force with their black clad uniformed enforcers and black vans will come to collect them for removal from the UK. The only thing I could relate this to was the 1940s wartime terror of Jewish families waiting for the inevitable visit from the Nazi Gestapo enforcers. A production like this can’t really be reviewed without mentioning the “Windrush Generation” and their families who have been facing similar Border Force visits for far too long now too (and often unreported).
There are no easy solutions to this very complex issue of asylum seekers, but there has to be better solutions available than the policies being used here. These UK policies also highlight a far wider issue of just how little influence a devolved Scottish Parliament has over non devolved UK wider issues such as immigration policies. It seems here that Scotland has very little say (if any) in UK law who can stay in Scotland when it comes to asylum seekers. That is perhaps another fight in itself for another day.
Review by Tom King