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The Girl in the Blue Coat
The Hen and Chickens
12th August 2014

★★★☆☆

Photography provided by Notable Theatre

It's every women's nightmare to be caught wearing the same outfit as another, particularly when the other woman is known as the better-looking one. Knowingly buying identical clothes as someone quite high profile and pretty is a recipe for disaster, but that's what fuels The Girl in the Blue Coat, a new musical.

Fiona Ho has taken Thomas Hardy's short story Destiny and a Blue Cloak, staged the action against the backdrop of the General Strike in 1842, added in some characters, completely changed the tone and set the piece to music. Although some lines are identical, this is very much a completely different story, with Ho's story evoking Austenesque superficial matchmaking and delving into union politics a bit like a British Pajama Game. If nothing else, the sheer ambition of what she has done, along with co-director David Bignell, is to be applauded.

In The Girl in the Blue Coat, Abbie Pollin (Lauren Potter) is delighted with her new purchase, a coat in a striking shade of blue which she believes will help her attract the attention of Mr Winwood (Patrick O'Sullivan), a good-looking gentleman with prospects. She does indeed gain his favour, but in a case of mistaken identity, he becomes convinced that she must be Frances Lovill (Georgia Thomas) due to stories he's heard of a beautiful but cruel lady in blue.

As Abbie gets to know Mr Winwood better, her cousin, Beth Pollin (Emily Calderwood) has already found her match. However, Beth hasn't aimed for a wealthy man, but a labourer called Harry O'Connor (Peter Moore), who works for her father, Miller Pollin (Warren Brooking). The pair are classes apart, and with it being the 19th century, that does make rather a difference.

Even the rich have their money worries, and the miller effectively intends to sell off his niece to the odious Farmer Lovill (O'Sullivan). Mayor Davids (James Wordsworth) unexpectedly advises Abbie to go along with the plan, as she will be able to renege if her beloved Mr Winwood shows up. Beth is worried for her relative, with the two women as close as sisters - and then when she finds out her father intends to leave the country and take her with him, separating her from Harry, both women are thrown into despair. They are seemingly unable to take control of their own lives.

Despite being a musical in two acts, the company power on without an interval. Presumably this is down to the limitations of booking a slot during the Camden Fringe, so although it feels rushed in the middle, it's understandable. Ho somehow manages to squeeze in a full orchestra and leads them to technical victory, but the Hen and Chickens is not a large enough venue and this causes problems for the singers, who frequently find themselves competing to be heard.

I'm not sure an hour is long enough to do justice to the love story and political unrest, with the result being that the strike becomes a distracting background piece rather than a strong subplot. The Girl in the Blue Coat is a gentle comedy of errors, executed reasonably well, but it would be better suited to a larger venue and some of the vocal work isn't quite perfect. It's an impressive attempt to reinvigorate an old story but this is certainly one production which would benefit from another run elsewhere.

The Girl in the Blue Coat opened on 11th August and runs until 17th August 2014 at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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