The Big Book For Girls began life in 1990 as a superior Daisy Pulls It Off-style romp. Its Edinburgh Fringe incarnations in 1994 and 1995 saw it growing at once flashier and darker, and more gleefully perverse on all fronts. Revived once more to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the National Student Theatre Company, Joe Richards's latest version (in collaboration with director Iain Ormsby-Knox) at last achieves all the many goals which it had set for itself.
This has become much more than an opportunity for students to disport themselves in camply alluring costumes for a brief period of misrule (as, for instance, is the tedious impression given by so many university productions of Cabaret). True, Richards and Ormsby-Knox revel in the period gymslip hokum of the piece: schoolgirl/teacher crushes, tuck-box regulations and the radicalism of a "gel" cricketer bowling overarm are all dealt with in meticulous detail. Nick Brace's musical numbers are the source of varied delights: the songs in themselves stay just on the right side of the line which separates pastiche from parody, but are performed by the entire 20-strong company in complex a capella arrangements which move into D'Oyly Carte territory before Ormsby-Knox's direction and choreography conjure up the vision of a demented Busby Berkeley (or, on one or two occasions, a demented Esther Williams). Absurdity of this order needs to be tightly drilled, and Ormsby-Knox and musical director Vibeke Strøm have trained their charges well.
The acting style pantomimes the atmosphere of school stories: determined gels rest more hands on more hips than in every "proper" London panto put together; Jessica Willcocks's Miss Perrin carries more than a whiff of Joyce Grenfell, and as Brenda Diamond, "the best girl in the school", Helena Lyons stiffens her upper lip until it rivals that of Edward Fox. Lyons is blessed with half of the funniest cross-purposes conversation I have ever heard performed: her lieutenant's plan for the traditional monthly midnight dorm feast is mistaken by Brenda for another monthly event entirely.
However, the snobbery and xenophobia of this world is not merely the butt of humour. The mild discomfort of a plot-line involving a day-girl and a school servant grows stronger when we witness the patronising incomprehension offered to Gerda, an Austrian Jew whose parents have disappeared following the Anschluß. The play's closing moments, which have grown progressively through their several versions in terms both of dramatic coherence and emotional power, leave no doubt that the England of Whitegates School is a land of genteelly codified but fundamentally brutal privilege. Whilst this final uneasiness modulates what has gone before, though, it does not conflict with the predominant note of scrupulously planned and executed antique patrician silliness.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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