Those desirous of a bit of relief from Royal Wedding hysteria could do a lot worse than pop into St Andrew’s Players latest musical offering. The Matchgirls celebrates the famous and courageous strike of 1888 to improve the working conditions of downtrodden factory women. Heavy in theme but light in depiction, simple songs intertwine with complex social issues to illustrate both small community drama and the larger political stage. In an astute intimate setting, surprising in such a large arena, the camaraderie of London’s underclass is best displayed in some powerful collective singing and strong portrayals from the two warring lovers of Jo Yirrell and Joe Hawkins. More small scale musical than blockbuster, The Matchgirls informs, educates, and entertains in the best Reithian fashion. I doubt the Windsor lot being able to say the same. Malcolm Farrar directs with pleasing imagination. Roy Hall
When I said all the above after watching the Wednesday dress rehearsal I had every intention of following up with a fuller review. Star ratings and all. You see, I am so clever I can project my imagination to actual performing nights with bursting audiences and honed and polished portrayals. Except I can’t, and besides it ain’t fair. Those on stage, and the ones twiddling electrics and musical batons, might be better, or worse, than I imagined. First night brilliance followed by second or third night wobbles, the latter almost guaranteed if a bloody critic is in. And that bloody critic gets the one, elusive, theatrical snapshot that provokes rave or rant. As it should be. All I get from a dress rehearsal is an impression, a promise that may or may not be fulfilled. Bit like a Newmarket trainer watching his horse on the limekilns gallops. It may flash and flare in its prep but only the actual race will find if it flops or fires. I knew I would get in a racing analogy somewhere. It’s my own fault, should have attended one of the actual nights to get the full flavour. But I didn’t. So I am not going to do an official review. I might have done some musings instead and, if I had, here they are. If you know what I mean.
Simple musical with serious issues underlining it. Needs a studio setting with bravura playing by the cast. Being belted in a small space fits the bill. It cleverly got the former thanks to director Malcolm Farrar astutely enveloping all in a small black set. Annie Besant’s palatial St John’s Wood domicile simply suggested by a splendid chaise longue, and leading man Joe’s backyard realistically evoked by Victorian street lamp and sounds of lapping water were particularly impressive. Mr Farrar clearly had the right idea and linked the disparate scenes pretty well. The switching link in the song ‘Something About You’ certainly ticked my theatrical boxes. Some other scene changes were a bit muted, most notably boys' low key whistling for distant pigeons, but imagination says this would have improved with performance. I am so kind. Acting and singing split me if that does not sound too painful. The singing was generally pretty good, individually and collectively, and if the songs aren’t memorable they were very catchy. I particularly liked ‘Men’, though God knows where it came from in the narrative. But who cares. Kate and Polly belted it over. And who couldn’t like ‘Waiting’ and ‘This Life of Mine.’ Stirring stuff both. In my reviewing days St Andrew’s Players had a reputation for being one of the best around for choral singing in musicals. You can still see why. I haven’t a single word or pithy phrase to say about the musicians, so they must have been good. I only notice duff notes. So I reckon Richard Cowling and his team did a pretty good job.
Now acting is different. I am an expert on acting. Ask anyone who has ever thrown a brick at me. I can spot a mislaid cue or a misplaced line a mile off. Pace and truth are meat and drink to me in characterisation. My numerous unpublished books are only outsold by my best seller ‘How to Win at Newmarket.’ Don’t go, is the answer to that one. But, opinions folks not facts, I sniffed out a few in the acting stakes. Jo Yirrell (Kate) and Joe Hawkins (Joe) were spirited leads drawn apart by political circumstances. Neatly encapsulated in the dilemma Kate felt when the call of social agitation eclipsed the promise of flight to the American dream. A misunderstood matchgirl if ever there was one. If I preferred Joe Hawkins acting, very strong, to his singing I suspect he does as well. Of the others Allanah Rogers impressed for a sassy Polly, disconcertingly pleasing on the eye, Tracey Chatterley for a powerful Mrs Purkiss, all East End suffering in her face, and Evie Wright for a scheming and manipulative Jessie. In a mixed ensemble all gave notable performances. As did Frances Hall in the small role of Annie Besant’s no nonsense secretary and Reece Lowen as match factory foreman Mynel. All menace, mouth and moustache, he commendably stayed just the right side of archetypal Victorian villain. I should not, of course, mention Mrs Hall so I will not do so.
I will mention the toffs though. Apart from anything else they were the real characters in a real piece of history wrapped up in fictional working class characters. Annie Besant, socialist reformer, and George Bernard Shaw, socialist windbag, lived and breathed through late 19th century history and beyond. The matchgirls strike was meat and drink to their reformist agenda. They both did a fine job, Malcolm Farrar every inch one’s perception of a young GBS and Michelle Arnold a fine and gentle Mrs Besant. Possibly too gentle at times as always vocally more at ease in familiar settings of office and home than in alien surroundings of the great unwashed. Perhaps the real Mrs Besant had the same problems. I have no idea. This is a muse not a history lesson. And neither was Bill Owen’s musical. A history lesson that is. We got a slight flavour of the real social strife but we got more of a few jolly songs. And all in all it made for a pretty good evening, nicely choreographed by the excellent Sarah Albert and splashed with good sound and light by Tim Garside and Paul Horsler. And that was the dress rehearsal when, so I am told, everything usually goes wrong. I must have been lucky and, probably, it all went pear shaped on the opening night. I doubt it though. Once they warmed up this Matchgirls started to gel.
Here endeth the unwritten muse.