Girl Band (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta) ★★★★

Written by Katy Warner. Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. 18 – 27 May, 2023.

Playwright Katy Warner is taking aim at performative “girl power”, literally, in her new play Girl Band, going behind the scenes of the birth of a 90s pop group. For all the bubble-gum music and outfits, this tale gets realistically dark.

Music industry svengalis Craig and Darren are the money and power behind upcoming girl group, The Sensation Girls, the brainchild of choreographer Becky (The Italians’ Amy Hack). In rehearsals, four of the quintet are stunned to learn that lead singer Didi has left the group, flying to London to launch a solo career. Founding member, MJ (LJ Wilson) wants to step up lead vocals (and the centre of the choreography), but the girls are shocked when Didi has been instantly replaced by Kiki (How to Defend Yourself’s Madeline Marie Dona) – a charming ex-stripper. But their in-group rivalries are nothing compared to the toxic patriarchy of the music business. For all their lyrics of female solidarity, the reality of making it in the industry is a murkier, dirtier warzone to navigate.

Jade Fuda, LJ Wilson, Madeline Marie Dona, Meg Clarke, Chaya Ocampo. Photo: Phil Erbacher

Disclaimer: I worked in music television for almost two decades from the late 90s, so this era of girl groups and 90s pop is something I know well. I got to see first hand how these groups came and went, and how they behaved behind-the-scenes when the cameras were turned off. Some were fantastic young professionals, some great vocalists, others sparkling personalities with passable voices, and some were frankly rancid. From callously pushy parents, soulless corporate taskmasters… it can be a nasty business behind the colour and lights. That’s why I found so much to love in this play.

Some of the observations of the dynamics of these teen-friendly groups are so lovingly rendered it’s clear Warner knows her pop. When lesbian Sammy (Past The Shallows‘ Meg Clarke) is told to tone it down, she bites back at the clear Sporty Spice/lesbian-coded personae she is forced to portray only to be told in no uncertain terms her sexuality is there to excite straight men, not empower queer women. The threat of being “replaced” mimics the changing rosters of groups like Destiny’s Child and Sugababes. When MJ, the “smiley” one of the group, rages at being overlooked yet again, she’s bluntly told she doesn’t have star power, and should be grateful to be dancing in the back.

Chaya Ocampo. Photo: Phil Erbacher.

Warner has created six characters of terrific depth that weave their way through the familiar tropes of teen pop stardom. From being forced to publicly date the member of a rival boyband, having interview questions answered by their manipulative management team and rewriting their life stories to better fit a narrative. It’s hard to pick a stand out character or performance, it’s clear that each one has been well crafted. Every storyline is clear, and nuanced and rarely reaches for melodrama – the script lets telling moments fly past and trusts the audience will catch them. 

It’s in this slow build of passing comments it becomes clear that these young women are being manipulated and expected to tolerate abuse. They see it being part of the job and are devastatingly worn down by it – each reacting differently. MJ has toughened herself to stoically get through it all. Stacey (Jade Fua) makes polite excuses. Jade (a stunning performance from Chaya Ocampo) tries to block it out. Becky tries to protect the girls while also enabling their abusers. It takes newcomer Kiki to blatantly point out that this is not right – but are they willing to throw their careers away?

Chaya Ocampo, Meg Clarke, Amy Hack. Photo: Phil Erbacher

The loving pastiche that fills the script is sadly dampened by the tunes (these aren’t Cathy Dennis-penned bangers, or Xenomania chart toppers by any stretch of the imagination). If we’re to believe there might be an upside for these women to tolerate their situation, then there has been evidence they could conceivably hit number one. The deliberately poor tunes make their songwriting overlords look amateurish and the group members come off stupid for believing any of it might pay off. Thankfully the songs are little more scene setting, this isn’t a musical, it’s a drama. 

Girl Band is a rock solid drama with great performances all round. This play is just at the start of its journey, and it’ll be exciting to see where it ends up.






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