“A letter-writing campaign and a petition to stop child detention in Scotland. It’s not exactly ‘Legally Blonde” is it?”
That’s what Amal, one of the eponymous ‘Glasgow Girls’, says when questioning whether their story should be a musical. And thankfully (as someone who has seen Legally Blonde the musical), this isn’t that…
The self-named Glasgow Girls are teenagers who fought against the detention of asylum seeker children and dawn raids in Scotland. From a variety of cultural backgrounds and nationalities themselves (including Somalian, Kurdish, Roma Polish as well as Scottish) Amal Azzudin, Roza Salih, Ewelina Siwak, Emma Clifford, Toni Lee Henderson and Jennifer McCarron started their fight after their fellow Drumchapel High School friend, Agnesa Murselag’s family were removed from their home in the middle of the night and threatened with deportation. The teenagers take on the Scottish Parliament and the UK Home Office, which ruled in 2005 that it was safe for asylum seekers to return to Kosovo. For Agnesa’s family – Kosovan Roma – this was far from the case.
Why a musical?
But as Amal says this doesn’t necessarily seem like the stuff of musicals. Another ‘Glasgow Girl’, Emma Clifford, was surprised on hearing it was to be in this genre:
“Jazz hands does not fit the bill here. But the more I thought about it, music was so much a part of our campaign. Whenever we were celebrating or anything like that there was so much music. It was inspiring.” (BBC website)
After watching Lindsay Hill’s TV documentary Tales from the Edge about the campaigning teenagers, director Cora Bissett, decided to opt for this form as music played such a big part in the girls’ lives but also reflected their different cultural backgrounds.
The music and choreography work to create a vibrancy and energy mirroring that felt in the girls’ campaign; from the exuberance of their solidarity (you’ll be humming the ‘Glasgow Girls’ theme after you leave the theatre) to the threatening in Patricia Panther’s menacing performances as the opposition – police officers, immigration and spin doctors.
The production plays with the fact that it’s “a life-affirming new musical based on a true story”. Throughout the piece, characters question whether their campaign should be a musical (it’s mostly about photocopying) and at the beginning the girls shout down an off-stage “Hollywood” voice-over telling their story. In the self-aware, happy ‘opening montage’, the girls sing about Glasgow (where it rains all the time except when it snows) and do a routine with tartan umbrellas. The seventh ‘Glasgow Girl’, Tony Lee Henderson isn’t in the play but the characters shout to her off-stage. I am not sure whether they cut her character out because she didn’t want to be portrayed but again this seems like a joke at mainstream cinematic reflections of real life, where the truth is pared down.
The other residents of the Kingsway high-rise flats worked together to stop the dawn raids with an early warning system to help the intended victims evade arrest. The character of Noreen (played by Myra McFadden) represents them. With self-awareness, she claims that she didn’t want to be involved in a musical but she has to stand in for all the others. Again playfully, she questions how you can reflect real life in a Glaswegian high-rise if you are prohibited from smoking in the theatre and urges the girls to give the musical a happy ending as that’s what is expected (unless it’s a very ‘modern’ musical).
This artifice and playfulness actually works to make the play feel “real”. In the second half, there is an invented family seeking asylum, the Chirugoes from the Congo, whom the girls try to help. As a plot device to illustrate the emotional distress of immigration and deportation – a symbol of the girls’ fight – they worked well. However in comparison to the other vibrant characters, they were only really seen as victims or through the local community’s eyes rather than being drawn out more fully.
To a Mouse….
Mr Girvan (played by Callum Cuthbertson), the girls’ teacher, sings Scottish Bard, Robert Burns’ To a Mouse including the lines:
I’m truly sorry man’s dominion,
Has broken nature’s social union…
As a Scot who’s lived in England for 15 years or so… I try not to sentimentalise the homeland too much but I was moved as he sang this folk ballad. It’s so appropriate as Burns, not just a lover of nation, was an internationalist seeking to help the common man. The fight here is not just on racial or ethnic grounds but a fight against those who are crushed systemically. Later in the play, as a celebration the girls dance to this song again but this time it’s intertwined with globally diverse dances reflecting Scottish multiculturalism.
The play also mocks the political system which has lost touch with the people they represent (Dawn Sievewright as Tommy Sheridan at the Scottish Parliament drew a huge laugh from the audience). Scottish First Minister at the time, Jack McConnell is represented as a cabaret singer in a gold lamé jacket who remembers a time when he was like the girls’ idealistic teacher but has now become just a ‘mac’ down South without real power.
Want to see the Glasgow Girls?
Glasgow Girls was conceived and directed by Cora Bissett and written by David Grieg. The music is a collaboration between the director, Sumali Bhardwaj (Soom T), Patricia Panther and John Kielty.
Want to be a Glasgow Girl?
The play posits that the ‘Glasgow Girls’ aren’t just the seven girls but their teacher, the headteacher, Noreen, all the others in the community… and everyone who gets involved to help in this cause. Here are some organisations which are working to help change the lives of asylum seekers and refugees:
Have you seen any musicals that deal with tough, political issues? Does this story inspire you to get involved? Do get in touch and let me know.
If you would like hear more about the story, watch this Q & A with local Drumchapel residents and documentary filmmaker, Lindsay Hill alongside a real ‘Glasgow Girl’, Amal Azzudin, and her former teacher, Mr Cuthbertson.