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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

Rock Follies review – girl power pioneers earn their encore

(from left) Carly Bawden (Anna), Zizi Strallen (Q) and Angela Marie Hurst (Dee) in Rock Follies at the Minerva theatre.
Playing the game … (from left) Carly Bawden (Anna), Zizi Strallen (Q) and Angela Marie Hurst (Dee) in Rock Follies at the Minerva theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

Almost two decades before the Spice Girls gave us girl power, a fictional trio of feminist rockers were shaking up Britain’s male-dominated music scene in the TV show, Rock Follies.

This production is based on that musical drama, aired between 1976 and 1977. The singers in the ironically named band, the Little Ladies (originally played with punkish camaraderie by Rula Lenska, Charlotte Cornwell and Julie Covington) are working-class Dee (Angela Marie Hurst), well-spoken Q (Zizi Strallen) and Anna (Carly Bawden) a middle-class housewife from Dorking.

Rock Follies at the Minerva theatre.
Rock Follies at the Minerva theatre. Photograph: Johan Persson

We are taken from their struggles on the pub circuit to discovery by hard-nosed American manager Kitty (Tamsin Carroll) and Top of the Pops fame.

Directed by Dominic Cooke with a book by Chloë Moss, this is gig theatre at its most exuberant, with original songs by Howard Schuman and Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay, and no less fabulous all these years on.

The three central performances each carry charisma and actors have big, strong singing voices: Strallen is magnetic and brings a touch of Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy to her Q; Anna is a tough cookie whose spiral into addiction does not seem hackneyed. Dee here is a Black singer of exceptional talent in an era when the British music scene was overwhelmingly white, and this enriches the original story without a sense of being tacked on.

There is a low-rent, pub-gig vibe to the blasts of sound and lighting, as well as the scaffold stage. Vicki Mortimer’s set comprises large instrument boxes, forever moving, as if on an invisible tour bus. Scenes are short and snappy with actors marching on and off stage but this brings energy rather than dizziness or distraction. The songs come thick and fast too, with feminist lyrics in numbers such as Stairway and Hot Neon, along with gorgeous melodic harmonies in Glenn Miller is Missing and Biba Nova.

While it is wholly rooted in its time, the 1970s brand of “women’s lib” bears a similar spirit to Gen Z activism and undercuts the notion that today’s gender politics sit in opposition to old-style feminism.

There is a superb period wardrobe by Kinnetia Isidore, from the unbuttoned shirt of rock star Stevie Streeter (a brilliantly bratty Tim Curry in the original, here played with sociopathic creepiness by Sebastien Torkia) to the Björn Borg-style shorts worn by Q’s boyfriend (also Torkia).

Once they are selling out stadiums, they can “tell the men to take a jump”, the band agree, but until then “we have to play the game”. The production subtly dissects this idea and asks if a female-led band can ever organise itself differently in terms of power. And where male chauvinism is clearly, entertainingly, undercut, the machinery around the manufacture of a girl band is far harder to bypass, and as insidious. “This is business,” says Kitty, making all their decisions, and we wonder if the band’s feminism is simply being used as a USP.

But for all their compromises, Dee, Q and Anna remain unbroken, upbeat, empowered. Girl power indeed.

Rock Follies runs at the Minerva theatre, Chichester, until 26 August

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