The Girls of Slender Means

The delightful wit with its dark undertow of Murial Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means is caught brilliantly in this adaptation by Gabriel Quigley, directed by Roxana Silbert. Starting in the 60s the play then flashbacks to post-World War II between VE Day and VJ Day 1945 in a boarding hostel for ‘the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means’, founded by the Princess May of Teck and known as the Teck Club in Kensington. The ‘girls’ (young women under 30) are caught between coming to terms with memories of the horrors of the Blitz and hopes for their future in the postwar ‘New World’.

Men… do not feature in the girls’ dreams so much as Beauty, Dresses and Poetry

The plot centres round five girls whom we see perform a daily ritual of walking around with a book on their heads chanting ‘Poise is perfect balance, an equanimity of body and mind.’ Deportment and elocution seem to be their chief concern. The lead, Jane Wright (a strong and moving performance by Molly Vevers) is Scottish who nicely uses an occasional Scots word - such as ‘in a dwam’. She has a perpetual hunger, needing to nourish her ‘brain-work’ as a would-be journalist with literary ambitions in the days of rationing.

References to disgusting spam, coupons for food and clothes (plus margarine which also has an amusing plot role) all evoke the era wonderfully, as do the spot on high shoulders, three-quarter length sleeves and the semi-bouffoned hair with side clips, designed by Jessica Worrall, inspired by Lee Miller’s photos in Vogue. There is also a stunning evening dress belonging to an aunt of one of the girls. ‘A work of art you can live in’, it is a Schiaparelli in a fuschia pink, the colour also invented by Schiaparelli, which is loaned out between the girls on their dates.

Poverty and deprivation are the girls’ lives but all the best people are poor, says Jane. A backdrop showing bomb-damaged London is a striking set and one of the girls remarks on how staircases seem to survive leading to nowhere - a semi-humourous remark typical of the play. The set is cleverly minimal with moving pieces to suggest the girls’ sitting room with its tiny bathroom window (also a plot device where the girls must be ‘slender’) and the Smokey nightclub economically created by hanging blue twinkly strips.

Of course, there’s a love interest, Nicholas Farringdon (Seamus Dillane) a louche poet who unconvincingly claims to be an anarchist. His conversion to Catholicism and becoming a missionary priest in Haiti in later life seems a little unlikely also. Other men are imaginatively portrayed by uniformed mannequins whom the girls whirl around in the Smokey nightclub but men, apart from Nicholas, are offstage and do not feature in the girls’ dreams so much as Beauty, Dresses and Poetry. These are what the girls value to keep the nightmare world of the war at bay.

Set pieces show off their characters: Selena, beautiful but duplicitous, sings ‘I’m beginning to see the light’, in a lovely voice the first time, and, a second time with great skill breaking down. Pauline often wears the Schiaparelli to drive around in taxis to meet a famous and good-looking actor, Jack Buchanan and it becomes slowly clear things are not quite as she says, but her way of coping. Jo, (a poignant performance by Molly McGrath) is a vicar’s daughter, a seamstress, who reveals a skill for reciting poetry, in particular Gerald Manley Hopkins - the five nuns who drown commemorated in The Wreck of the Deutschland, of course, reflect on the troubles that the five girls face.

Poetry, elocution chants and song are threaded through with background historical references such as a possible Labour government and how it might change the world, in particular the need for a National Health Service. This lightness of touch is Spark at her best but the hints of darkness grow to a devastating flashback of Jane working as a telephonist for Intelligence where the scrambling noises have damaged her hearing and still plague her, bringing back horrific memories of what she heard, a new reality undercutting the new world promised by Labour. This darkness is a prelude to the play’s ending which results in the death of one of the girls. In reflection, the darkness has been woven through from the beginning, despite Jane saying she ‘never felt so alive’ as during the war.

Overall, a superb production, but unfortunately the girls’ screeching voices (apart from Molly McGrath as Jo and Molly Vevers as Jane) frequently made it difficult to tell one word from another. Such a shame that actors are not taught how to project their voices properly nowadays. It also meant that the show narrowly missed getting a fifth star from this reviewer.

Reviews by Stephanie Green

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★★★★
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★★★★
Lyceum Theatre

The Girls of Slender Means

★★★★
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★★★★
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★★★★
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★★★★

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

Drama adapted by Gabriel Quigley, from the novel by Muriel SparkDirected by Roxana Silbert

We were girls together during the war. In a boarding house for women on the Bayswater Road called The May of Teck Club. It was 1945, when all the nice people were poor... allowing for exceptions.

Set in the summer of 1945, The Girls of Slender Means follows the adventures of a group of young women who are caught between hope and unhappiness. As each girl grapples with what happened in the war, they begin to imagine what lies ahead of them in peacetime. A Schiaparelli gown, suitors and bacon rations are all bartered with in this lively and moving stage adaption of Spark's seminal novel.

Romance, work, fashion and politics collide in The Girls of Slender Means as the girls find joy amongst the rubble.

Production supported by James and Morag Anderson and Margaret Duffy and Peter Williamson

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