If there is a demographic prone to musical theatre, I’m pretty sure I’m not in it. As a middle-aged man, I don’t claim to be big on sequins, singalongs or spontaneous outbreaks of mass choreography. But my other half loves musicals and she wanted to see Glasgow Girls at Dundee Rep. So I was rather surprised to find myself, a few minutes into the show, with tears streaming down my face.
W. (as the kids say) T. F. ?
Glasgow Girls is the true story of the asylum seekers from all over the world who were parachuted into Glasgow by the Westminster government in 90’s and early 2000’s. The eponymous Girls were six teenage schoolgirls – four of them asylum seekers – and their teacher, who, with a simple campaign of petitioning and letter writing, managed to convince the Scottish government, then the European parliament, to force the British government to change its deportation policy.
The story begins with the arrival of the kids at their new school, tough Drumchapel High School. Rather than getting a hard time they are welcomed by the locals and much fun is had as the newcomers adapt to Scottish culture (pestered by an irritating classmate, Amal, the softly-spoken Somali girl, yells “touch me again and I’ll chib ye, ya hairy wee bawbag!”) and the local kids even start to learn a little Kurdish and Croatian. Everyone benefits – the school’s league table ranking even starts to improve. This is a story that did not need to be told in song but it works well, with the gradual blending of folk music and dance from eastern Europe, the Middle East and Scotland is neat shorthand for the blending of the Scottish and immigrant communities.
The terrible circumstances that brought these kids to the UK are sensitively handled: when asked to draw her home back in Iraq, Roza sketches the image of a gun pointing at a blindfolded man (the audience audibly gasped). Amal cries with joy because back home she wouldn’t have been allowed to go to school, and then there is cute wee football-mad Ali who copes with the trauma of being put in a detention centre by obsessively chanting “Celtic, Celtic…”. The absurdity and inhumanity of an immigration policy that allowed children to be placed in adult jails is represented by nameless uniformed security guards. Their songs are sinister chants. Their lyrics, Daily Mail headlines. They don’t believe the asylum seekers really face jeopardy in their homelands because, surely, “They’re all at it!”
The absolute show-stealer is Terry Neason’s salt-of-the-earth housewife Noreen. She embodies the Scotstoun community who have nothing to give except friendship and compassion. She and her friends mount 5am patrols of their tower block so they can quickly hide their new friends from UK Border Control’s dawn raids. Noreen’s song is moving, passionate and furious.
Glasgow Girls is only one story of many in Glasgow’s long history of welcoming other cultures. It should be mandatory viewing for all politicians, schoolchildren and Daily Mail readers, a clear illustration of how both resident and incoming communities benefit from the arrival of immigrants. The real Glasgow Girls managed to force the Prime Minister to follow European law. No family may now be deported if deportation will endanger children. It shames us all that it took children to force our elected leaders to make even this small concession to protect their lives.
Sadly it was too late for some. When little Ali and his mother are deported back to their homeland, to face certain danger, it is Noreen who expresses our frustration “How do you explain…” she sings “…he’s just a little boy in a big boy’s game?”. By then, I was in bits.
Glasgow Girls is a modern Scottish classic. It’s coming to the end of its Dundee run but it will return, and I recommend you go, especially if you don’t fit the cliche of a musical theatregoer.