In 1965, the Hull based all-female rock and roll group Mandy and the Girlfriends returned from an international tour to play a homecoming gig at Hull City Hall. And here in 2018, She Productions followed in their footsteps as they brought their fictional five-piece band Sindy and the Girlfriends to the very same venue in their brand new musical It’s Different for Girls.
The show is great fun and a joyous celebration of the real life Girlfriends’ inspirational story that interrogates female struggle in a patriarchal society as well as the personal and emotional price of fame and pursuing your dreams. Under Becky Hope-Palmer’s direction, for the most part the show buzzes along with excitement and optimism even though the band are repeatedly told that they are good, but only ‘for girls’.
The musical numbers are superb and when Sindy and the Girlfriends are playing, the show really comes to life. The infectious 60’s soundtrack is nothing short of joyous and the impressive singing, actor-musicianship and precise choreography remind us just how groovy the 60’s really were. The show has lots of fun with musicality and some of the best moments weave dialogue and narrative between intricate medleys and songs. Unfortunately, some scenes without this underscore do feel underwhelming as a result of these highs.
The ensemble cast and their on-stage friendships bring boundless energy and charm to the production. Ailsa Hutchinson in particular provides a wealth of laugh out loud moments through her portrayal of Betsy, the fish and chips obsessed drummer who struggles to keep time. Between seamlessly picking up and putting down instruments, there’s plenty of multi-rolling to support the show’s playful approach to storytelling. It’s a lovely touch that each member of the cast gets their chance to don the outlandish glasses and leopard skin coat of Sindy’s mum and band manager, each adding something new to her character.
The show covers a lot of important moments in the band’s career in a comparatively short amount of time and this does result in some uneven plotting and a lack of convincing character development. The cast does their best to provide as much nuance as possible but some of the characters border on caricature until they are given the opportunity to develop during the second half.
There is an unexpected and abrupt tonal shift near the end of the show, in a scene that depicts a horrific act of violence that contrasts greatly to the gentle and light-hearted events that both precede and follow it. This scene poses a number of new and important questions but is introduced too late to allow for any real examination of its consequences, instead being followed by some more light-hearted camaraderie and another song that now feel out of place in the grim shadow of what went before. The result of leaving these issues unaddressed is a lack of clarity as to whether the show is celebrating these women and their stories or presenting a social critique of the era it depicts.
It feels important to stress that whilst the parting message is not entirely clear, It’s Different for Girls is still a charming show that thrives on its fusion of playful musicality and theatricality, supported by the energy, commitment and skill of the cast. It felt particularly special to be able to watch this production in Hull City Hall. As Sindy shouted ‘Hello Hull’ as they began the show’s closing number, She Productions transformed the space, themselves and the audience. We were no longer watching a play. We were watching Sindy and the Girlfriends on their triumphant homecoming gig, beautifully mirroring the real life performance in 1965. And it was magical.