It's Different For Girls
East Riding Theatre
With the recent visit from Geri Halliwell #GirlPower is written all over the new musical It's Different For Girls, directed by Becky Hope-Palmer and inspired by the story of the Hull beat-group Mandy & the Girlfriends. Back in 1966, they were the first all-female group in the UK to play all their own instruments; girl pop groups singing on stage such as The Shangri-Las and The Supremes were very popular, but there were no women playing rock 'n' roll.
The original band formed when members Lesley and Hillary saw Mandy, already an established singer, one night at Hull's Sombrero Club and, despite not knowing how to play, asked her if she wanted to form an all-girl group. She did and, together with friends Karen and Lynda, Mandy & the Girlfriends was borne. They set off in a florist's van to conquer the music world one gig at a time, eventually landing a tour in Germany. The inventive set design by Ed Ullyart makes for a fun ferry crossing to the continent and a good excuse for a song.
She Productions has devised the musical It’s Different for Girls with support from the original group members, however the popular theatre company makes it clear that their story is a construct, inspired by Mandy & the Girlfriends.
For a start, the band’s name in the musical is Sindy & the Girlfriends, establishing right away a separation between the two, and all the names are different too. The full band line up: Sindy, lead vocals (Annie Kirkman); Mitzi, bass (Sophie Coward); Poppet, backing vocals (Alice Rose Palmer); Vicki, keys (Rachel Barnes); Betsy, drums (Abey Bradbury).
The East Riding Theatre stage is set ready for a gig, with instruments on stage, drum kit on the riser, Marshall amps: the works. The show is divided into Side A and Side B with distinct numbered ‘tracks’ indicated by a light-up sign. The backdrop is suitably psychedelic and smartly doubles up as a side street, club interior, the ladies' or is used to display headlines of the day, including clippings from the original band. The atmospheric strip lighting, particularly in the second half, adds a sense of danger to the rock 'n' roll trip.
The story is set in the 'sixties so the styling has to look the part and it does, with differently- coloured mini dresses, white boots, hair and make-up fixed just so by costume designer Tiffany Wilkinson-Morris.
It is a musical so the songs have to stand up. The score is a mix of well-known covers, 'sixties standards by The Ronettes, Sandy Shaw, Franki Valli and the like. It is during an acoustic reprise of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons 1968 hit "Stay" that the musicianship really shines: the timing; emotional delivery and harmonising is a moment to savour.
The original songs are bouncy sing-alongs, including one about their harridan of a manager, Mrs Smith, which is a whole bunch of fun. It’s not all bright lights and sparkles for the five: along the way, there’s band rivalry, dubious contracts and GIs with wandering hands, but the real threat to the band lies far closer at hand.
If I’m to be picky, the balance on the opening number wasn’t right, those backing vocals were hardly audible and that cartoonish record rewind audio device—indicating a flashback—quickly becomes a distraction, but, with some time and tweaking, She Productions and the Girlfriends may just have a hit on their hands.
It’s Different for Girls is a fun rock 'n' roll musical with catchy numbers and a positive message that manages to be both fun and feminist—with a small ‘f’. It is true that these girls are living during great changes in society, that they do have certain freedoms denied their peer group and unheard of for the generation before. However, the questions around gender expectation, the right way to behave, even from within the group, are never that far away.
The final message the show leaves you with is a hopeful one, perhaps underlined by the fact that this is a story with an all-female cast which is being shown in a professional theatre by an all-female company.
If this had been anywhere else, Sindy & the Girlfriends would already have a cross-over record out in the real world.
Reviewer: Michelle Dee