What could be better on a hot Summer’s night than a feel good show celebrating 50’s red hot property, the Vernon Girls? Hot – weather that is: were this horror, the hairs on your neck would be too plastered down to stand up. Horror? Well, although a cheerful, intriguing blend of music and history, it is horrific, judging by the gasps from the audience at some points. On the one hand, a bunch of talented teenagers whose dreams come true, from company choir to showbiz glamour, on the other – the iron fist, barely clad in a velvet glove, their big bosses, manipulative (the usual platitudes about being one big happy family) and exploitative, don’t see their actions as such. It’s just the way it is. And what an easy way to make lots of money, for them. When Equity points out the girls are not being paid anywhere near enough, they’re completely ignored.
In between the excellent music, delivered by a constantly changing line-up of the brilliant band, the four saxophonists in particular, there’s a great deal of exposition from the charming, enthusiastic narrator, 16-year-old Peggy (Abigail Middleton). It’s deftly dealt out by award winning writer Karen Brown, charting the rise of rock n’ roll, some of the girls’ stories, and life in Liverpool (‘don’t mention the ‘L’ word’ – Littlewoods), so plenty of snappy one-liners on the lines of ‘from Huyton – to Her Royal Highness’. But Maggie’s somber observation sums up exquisitely the truth: the irony that there should be an apostrophe to indicate Vernons’ possessive, because the girls belong to Vernons.
A neat counterpoint to the sexism is having an all-girl cast, and how versatile they are as actors, musicians, dancers, and comics. Let’s add virtuoso because they’re so good. The staging is clever enough to evoke the dreary factory and the dreamy streets of London, good use being made of the backscreen: personal photographs, postcards of Blackpool, 50s footage, news et al. And the girls in their summer clothes, pretty as a picture in their flowery frocks, but wholly in the shade of the men, shown in strict pecking order: big boss, sinister, silent Kennerly; pompous, devious Grenfell (Tasha Dowd – an appealing Marty Wilde) and his underling, and underdog, Dawson, in a huge contrast a vibrant Jack Good (Rebecca Levy) whose passion for music led him to champion the girls. Unfortunately, not sure about Emma Jane Morton, either as Barnett, the bullying agent, so bad that in one of the rare right moves, he’s sacked. As for playing Cliff Richard, I am assured the mannerisms are in place, but never a fan.
As for the girls, praise goes to Lynfan Haf Roberts whose martinet, Miss Finegan, she makes sympathetic with her fondness for the girls, and Caitlin Lavagna, from Kennerley, at the top, down to Mrs Morgan, still philosophical for all she’s badly treated, neither young nor pretty enough to be kept in the choir. Izzy Neish as Joyce sets a great example, not for marrying Marty Wilde but becoming his manager, and Siobhan O’Driscoll (Maggie), Jamie Clarke (Barbara), Lydia Morales Scully (Jean) and Peggy herself, are scintillating. And feisty tho sadly not enough to turn against their bosses, even if they did help turn the tide, the ones who survived, and succeeded as The Vernon Girls, and beyond.
Indeed, you will come away happy (undoubtedly humming the tunes), if sadder but wiser; maybe Liverpool set, the themes, even more sadly, are universal, and this show should go on the road. And given a delightful, delicious dinner, just £14 for two courses, it’s as near as damnit a perfect night out.
Until 8th July, https://liverpoolsroyalcourt.com/
Reviewer: Carole Baldock
Reviewed: 14th June 2023
North West End UK Rating: