Hope of Happiness in the Ruins: The Girls of Slender Means at the Lyceum, Edinburgh

The Girls of Slender Means
The Girls of Slender Means

The Girls of Slender Means

From: 13 Apr 2024

To: 4 May 2024

Royal Lyceum Theatre
Grindlay Street
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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‘COLOUR’, twice underlined, was the first note I scribbled down when the curtain lifted on The Girls of Slender Means at Edinburgh’s Lyceum theatre. Colour might not be the first thing you’d associate with a story about post-war London, but it runs through this jubilant stage adaptation of Muriel Spark’s 1963 novella as though it were a character of its own. The wardrobe is colourful, the characters are colourful, there’s a real sense of vitality to the whole thing.  

'Elan' Head Office
‘Elan’ Head Office

The opening scene unfolds in the Elan office, a Sparkian reimagining of Vogue Magazine. Jane Wright, played by Molly Vevers, makes me wonder if the director of The Devil Wears Prada was a Spark fan, given that Miranda Priestly is almost certainly modelled on Jane. Every bit the demanding editor, she’s busy bossing her assistant around when she receives news of a certain Nicholas Farringdon’s passing, which catches her off-guard. Jane perches on the edge of her desk, resplendent in a green twinset which perfectly matches her rotary dial phone, and calls Anne Markham (Amy Kennedy). Anne picks up from stage right, a perfect mirror image of Jane rendered in red, also with matching telephone. It’s this consistent, meticulous attention to detail which makes the entire production so impressive – no detail is spared. 

Jane Wright in her green twinset
Jane Wright in her green twinset

I got a last-minute ticket to the evening show, and my seat happened to be in the front row. It wasn’t a spot I would have picked ordinarily, but I was quickly glad of it. Firstly, because it wasn’t panto or a comedy show, there was no risk of me getting involved. Secondly, from my vantage point I could see the actors’ faces up close, which gave me a new appreciation for the level of emotion behind their performances. 

Selina models 'scappers'
Selina models ‘scappers’
Pauline studies 'Elan'
Pauline studies ‘Elan’

The cast is small, but the performances are powerful, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie throughout. The Girls of Slender Means are a hodge-podge bunch bound together by economic necessity at The May of Teck Club, the boarding house in which they all live. Their sense of solidarity works as a metaphor for the post-war era, when making-do and mending was par for the course. There’s plenty of that spirit throughout, and perhaps the most unifying factor is a shocking pink Schiaparelli dress, ‘scappers’, that they each take turns to wear. 

Set against the backdrop of a world in turmoil, the first act establishes the girls as a somewhat giddy group, fawning over men and practising inane etiquette under the tutelage of the gorgeous but cunning Selina, played perfectly by Julia Brown. At times they seem like teenagers at a sleepover, and never more so than when they’re entertaining the aforementioned Nicholas Farringdon. Initially cast as Jane’s love interest, he quickly becomes an object of affection for all the May of Teck girls, whom he treats as mere source material for his writing. He’s particularly invested in the saintly Jo, though to what end it is unclear. He might just be a hopeless flirt, who fancies himself something of a literary genius and tireless patron of the arts. 

Then there’s scatter-brained Pauline, away with the fairies for the most part. On the surface she’s amusing, but there’s another more profound side to her which Shannon Watson effortlessly teases out. Her occasional moments of clarity prove Pauline to be the most emotionally-aware of all the May of Teck girls. We never find out what causes her to dissociate, but it seems clear that she’s struggling. 

Nicholas Farringdon stands to attention
Nicholas Farringdon stands to attention

Nicholas is a weak man, the type Selina professes to prefer, and when he defects from her in favour of Jane the rest of the girls are unsurprised. They rally around Jane in a heart-warming display of solidarity, but they don’t blame Selina. Instead, they question her motives, considering why she might be the way that she is. It’s at points like this where the more sobering side of the story shines through – these are vulnerable young women trying to make the best of incredibly difficult circumstances, and each bears her own war wounds, lingering below the surface. They’re forgiving of and hard on each other in equal measure, and there is always a sense of sisterhood. 

There are moments when the desperation of their situation becomes apparent, though these insights are normally delivered in the form of a seemingly throwaway comment, like when Amy references the toilet cisterns she sees hanging suspended in mid-air on her way to work. The last vestiges of family homes obliterated overnight, reduced to rubble and staircases which lead to nowhere. 

The production ends on a sombre note, taking the audience by surprise, so much so I thought my neighbour’s seat might close in on itself before she landed back in it, such was the height of her jump. At curtain-close, her husband mentioned how the production had made him think of his mother and how she must have experienced post-war London as a girl of slender means herself. ‘Which girl reminds you of her most?’ I asked. ‘Well, not that Selina anyway!’ he tutted, raising a whiskery eyebrow. 

Make sure to catch The Girls of Slender Means at Edinburgh’s Lyceum theatre, now in its final week.

With thanks to Eilidh Tuckett for this review, and to the team at the Royal Lyceum theatre. All images Mihaela Bodlovic.

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