The Girls of Slender Means

Apr 18 2024 | By More

★★★☆☆   Poignant

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Sat 13 Apr – Sat 4 May 2024
Review by Hugh Simpson

Gabriel Quigley’s adaptation of Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means for the Lyceum is an enjoyable and wonderfully acted piece of theatre, that does justice to its source’s substance if not its ambition.

Set in a central London hostel for financially distressed young gentlewomen in the limbo between VE Day and VJ Day, Quigley’s version pares back the number of characters to concentrate on five of the residents of ‘The May of Teck Club’. It also shows the effects of their association with the raffish ‘anarchist poet’ Nicholas Farringdon (Seamus Dillane).

Molly McGrath, Shannon Watson, Julia Brown, Amy Kennedy and Molly Vevers. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic.

It is no spoiler to say that Nicholas (following a startling career change) is later killed, as both book and play open with the news. This is constantly referred to throughout the book’s fractured time scheme, and here becomes more of a framing device.

The concentration on the central five points up a definite similarity to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in that this also features a group of young women, each with their own concerns and obsessions, who can easily be seen as different facets of one character.


There is the elegant Selina (Julia Brown), involved with a married US general among others; Anne (Amy Kennedy), frustrated that the end of the war means the end of her hopes of fulfilling employment; the shy and pious Joanna (Molly McGrath); the deluded Pauline (Shannon Watson), convinced she is dating a matinee idol; and Jane (Molly Vevers), whose hope that the world of books will lead to Bohemian liberation is confounded by discovery that it is just as chauvinistic as everywhere else.

Seamus Dillane and Molly Vevers. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

In order to flesh out the characters’ backstories, Quigley has drawn on other sources from Spark’s life and work; this makes the characters more sympathetic, but at the expense of the archly satirical content of the original. Furthermore, some of the added material seems decidedly out of place.

The replacement of the book’s more challenging structure also means the narrative becomes a much more traditional story of thwarted love.

beautifully performed

All of which means that – despite being sharply observed and beautifully performed – it is a little bloodless at times. It is certainly far too long. The source is a novella, and one that does not rely on plot, so a faithful adherence to the storyline, which is much less interesting than the way Spark tells the story, is not necessarily an advantage.

Even if you don’t know what is about to happen at the end, you could still be forgiven for wondering why it is taking so long getting there. The coda, while thematically coherent, is dramatically much less convincing.

Shannon Watson, Seamus Dillane, Amy Kennedy, Molly Vevers and Molly McGrath with Julia Brown (dancing). Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic.

The moments when the book is left behind for pure theatre are the most effective; a conversation conducted at telephone switchboards, or a nightclub with tailors’ dummies standing in for dance partners. Indeed, Roxana Silbert’s direction is constantly imaginative and sympathetic.

There is certainly no problem with the ensemble, who are uniformly excellent, with Vevers in particular shining as the socially awkward Jane.

Jessica Worrall’s design is also a high point; suitably, in a story where a shared designer dress takes on a mythic status, the costumes are particularly impressive.

relatively safe

An adaptation of Spark is always going to be a big draw in Edinburgh, not least because her love-hate relationship with the city appeals to our own version of the Caledonian cultural cringe.

So it is understandable that any version of her story might be relatively safe – even when much of the source material’s attraction comes from it being so experimental. The end result is a more conventional period drama of bittersweet nostalgia, but is satisfying on its own terms.

Running time 2 hours 30 minutes including one interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH9 3AX
Saturday 13 April – Saturday 4 May 2024
Tues – Sat: 7.30 pm; Mats Wed & Sat: 2.30 pm.
Details and tickets at: Book here.

Amy Kennedy, Julia Brown, Molly McGrath, Molly Vevers and Shannon Watson. Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic.

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Comments (1)

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  1. Dr M Relich says:

    Hugh Simpson’s review is most informative. I haven’t yet seen the production of ‘The Girls of Slender Means’, but I especially appreciate the lucid way the reviewer has zeroed in on how this adaptation differs from Spark’s waspish narrative style in favour of something more nostalgic, while at the same time praising the performances, and arguing that it’s still a worthwhile production.

    Thank you

  2. Harriet Harris says:

    Thoroughly enjoyed this EXCEPT, no properly brought up/educated young lady of the time would ever have answered a telephone and said “Can I help you?” Drummed into us at school (James Gillespie’s in fact) that the question should be “May I help you?” There’s a big difference. The former means “Am I capable of helping you?” to which the answer would be “I don’t know, are you?”. The latter is an offer to assist. Author take note. Grammar ain’t taught proper these days!

  3. Suzanne Senior says:

    I really loved this production! It was very watchable, with well-defined characters and imaginative staging. I found the ending particularly moving and well-done. I saw a production of this play a few years ago, also at the Lyceum, and thought this was far superior. I bought the book after the last production but didn’t get very far as I found it boring. I now feel inspired to revisit it!