Rock Follies was a groundbreaking television series about an all-female rock band that originally aired for two seasons in 1976 and 1977. It wove fantastical, trippy and campy rock-musical numbers together with the often less glamorous realities of show business. The television show also led to two soundtrack albums, Rock Follies and Rock Follies of ’77, that charted in the UK.
Now, nearly 50 years after it first aired, the show has been reimagined as a stage musical with a new book by Chloë Moss that showcases the TV show’s original music from Howard Schuman and Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay.
The Chichester Festival Theatre staging is a successful update for a contemporary live audience. It pays musical homage to the glam decadence of 1970s rock while simultaneously illustrating how far women still have to go in the ongoing struggle for equality. As political as it is fabulous, the new musical plainly shows how the patriarchy is not merely a relic of history.
A strong staging
The new production sounds fantastic, with strong performances by not only the Little Ladies – the name of the all-female band – but also the versatile and dynamic supporting cast.
Set designer Vicki Mortimer’s simple setting of stage platforms, lights and road trunks effectively transforms the Minerva Theatre studio into an intimate concert venue. The Little Ladies are backed by a live rock band whom I found myself wishing could jump over the barrier and rock out with the cast at several points during the show.
The show is packed with more than 30 musical numbers – standouts include Glenn Miller is Missing and The Things You Have To Do, sung by Kitty (a powerhouse Tamsin Carroll), the new American female manager of the Little Ladies.
But perhaps the most timely of the songs, Jubilee, is sung by the Little Ladies at a fundraising gala to protest the event’s corporate whitewashing:
Take a bus and see the dole queues
Enjoy spectacular inflation
You’ll be knocked out by our poverty
Another British institution
Like the Silver Jubilee.
These lyrics from 1977 echo newspaper headlines from last year, about a coronation celebration amid a cost of living crisis. Sound familiar? The writers have been able to make this story of 1970s female rock power strikingly contemporary as it tackles issues like sexism, racism and income inequality.
Voices for change
While much of the sexism faced by the original television trio was of its time, this new iteration of Rock Follies makes it clear that the patriarchal power structure faced by Q, Dee and Anna in the 1970s are still in place today.
Repeatedly objectified as mere sex objects or dismissed as unqualified, the three women navigate a landscape of obstacles when it comes to establishing their own voices in the music industry. They are as passionate about music as they are about finding their own way, despite the societal pressures at both home and the workplace that keep telling them to stop.
Anna (Carly Bawden), a drug-addicted middle-class Cambridge graduate, is a strong singer but a much better songwriter. When she dreams of performing rock music, her husband instead encourages her to work in an office. “You’d make a good secretary!” he tells her in a backhanded compliment.
Dee (a fantastic Angela Marie Hurst), who lives in a commune with her boyfriend Spike, faces not only sexism but racism by a whole array of record industry executives who either dismiss her star power as “exotic”, or refuse to support a Black performer. And the charming Q (Zizi Strallen), who offers to do another soft-core porn film to financially support the band, is weighed down by a freeloading partner who only wants her when she is successful.
Each of the performances is strong and charismatic. All three of the Little Ladies also posses the lung power to do Howard Schuman and Andy Mackay’s music more than justice. At a time when celebrating girl power (albeit a more complex version) is back, with big hits like the Barbie film, Rock Follies is a welcome fierce feminist addition to the UK’s theatre scene.
Rock Follies is on at Chichester Festival Theatre, till Saturday 26 August
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The post “powerful new musical brings 1970s feminist TV sensation to the stage” by Erika Hughes, Reader in Performance, University of Portsmouth was published on 08/03/2023 by theconversation.com