30 July 2012

West End Girls: A World Premiere

Playwright Ken Duncum on West End Girls, Barbara Tate and a bittersweet odd-couple relationship.

Playright Ken Duncum in the South of France.
I read the West End Girls book two years ago more or less by chance. It was recommended to me by a friend who thought it might have interesting possibilities as a stageplay. I wasn’t looking for a new project as I already had more ideas queued up than I had time to deal with. Nevertheless I read the book - and found that I could not stop thinking about it afterwards.

I responded to the honesty, clarity and humour of Barbara Tate's writing and experiences, her vivid evocation of the secret world of a vanished time and place - 1940s Soho - and the way she showed us that world through her own eyes, the eyes of a naive and unworldly girl whose innocence slowly evolves into self-knowledge and wisdom. At its heart it is the story of Barbara's coming-of-age, and the story of the first and most intense friendship of her life - with the irresistible and dazzling Mae, the Queen of Soho. That real-life friendship brought joy, comedy, frustration and tears, and ultimately was a relationship Barbara had to leave behind in pursuit of her own destiny - but Barbara never forgot or regretted it, it was in many ways her first love.

It was Barbara's character (the virgin in the midst of a sexual tornado), the character of Mae (the sexual tornado herself), their bittersweet odd-couple relationship, and their hilarious and eye-poppingly frantic working life that convinced me I had to adapt West End Girls for the stage.

The story is refreshing in treating the full panoply of sex as a normal human pursuit and prostitution as a commonsense aspect of that. There is no great moral lesson about prostitution to be found in it - hopefully there are several about life and relationships.

Barbara died shortly before the publication of her book, but there is a website - barbaratate.co.uk - which has much about her life, art and Soho experiences. It's well worth a visit.

Since its publication in 2010 there has been a flurry of tv, film, radio and stage interest in adapting the book, but this Circa production of West End Girls will be a world premiere of the story in any dramatic form.

As with any adaptation, the challenge for me has been what material from the book to include and what to leave behind, and how to find effective ways to dramatise the stories and characters. I have been able to work from a longer manuscript version of the book, and it was invaluable to be able to go to the source and find there new details, events and context.

Early on I made the decision that the play would be stylized rather than trying to represent place and action naturalistically. The script demands a lot from its performers as it is intensely physical at times, seeking to create a kaleidoscope of energy and movement in order to represent a cast of thousands and the pace and movement of a crowded hectic day in these women's lives. The actors must also be able to switch into a more dramatic mode when required.

Jessica Robinson as Mae and Victoria Abbott as Barbara.
I think West End Girls will appeal to a broad audience who will respond to its humour, its strong female characters and friendships, bold staging, vibrant acting and colourful non-naturalism, light treatment of a subject of enduring fascination (sex) and glimpse into a secret (and crazy) world we know little about. The fact that it all happened and these characters really existed is another plus.

West End Girls opens in Circa One on 4 August and runs until 1 September. There will be a $25 Preview on Friday, 3 August and a $25 Special on Sunday, 5 August. To book, call the Circa Box Office on 801-8137 or go online at www.circa.co.nz

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