Review: Vernons Girls at Royal Court Liverpool ****
UNESCO City of Music, World Capital of Pop, home to the biggest band the globe has ever seen – we all know Liverpool’s musical credentials.
But it turns out that like the unseen photos of John, Paul, George and Ringo that are, even now, sporadically discovered in people’s lofts, there are also still stories out there that are little known or seldom told.
Ian Salmon’s Girls Don’t Play Guitars, which the Royal Court premiered in 2019, was one case in point, shining the spotlight on early 60s girl guitar band The Liverbirds.
Now screenwriter Karen Brown has pulled back the curtain on another all-girl group who flew the flag for Liverpool talent, but who only those who were young in the 1950s might readily recall.
We think of them as more innocent times, and Vernons Girls certainly looks and sounds wholesome – its chaperoned heroines wear floral, full-skirted frocks (apart from one daring ‘short shorts’ episode), curfews are strictly observed, gloves must always be carried, vulgar habits like smoking are forbidden, and there’s a purity in their vocal harmonising.
Their version of Johnny Mercer’s jazz standard Dream is gorgeous.
But beyond its amiable, nostalgia-tinged surface Brown’s story is also one of working-class aspiration, artist exploitation, the rise of the ‘teenager’ as a distinct social and market force, and the clash between the controlling patriarchy and young women trying to find and use their own voice.
It’s 1956 at Vernons Pools in Aintree which employs 3,000 women as coupon checkers and where staff wellbeing comes well below staff productivity in a list of priorities. Recreational facilities are confined to sporty stuff for the blokes, and a choir for the little ladies.
But with an eye to the promotional opportunities afforded by a singing group, particularly in the eternal battle with rivals Littlewoods, sociopathic manager Mr Grenfell (Tasha Dowd) prunes the middle-aged faces from Vernons Voices and sends the bright, attractive, ornamental young things out on the road.
From a summer season on the North Pier at Blackpool, Peggy (Abigail Middleton), Barbara (Jamie Clarke), Joyce (Izzy Neish), Carole (Emma Jane Morton) and Jean (Lydia Morales Scully) head to London where they become the popular resident backing singers for starry names appearing on the pioneering Six-Five Special and later on producer Jack Good’s seminal teen pop show Oh Boy!
They even get to perform alongside Cliff Richard at a Royal Command Performance.
Above: Vernons Girls. Top: Abigail Middleton as Peggy. Photos by Jason Roberts Photography.
Opportunity knocks then, but it turns out the talent has no real control and certainly isn’t seeing the money being made from its exertions. When the girls do pluck up the courage to stand up for themselves, they’re patronised, then threatened, then schmoozed, while behind the scenes there are manoeuvres to replace them with even younger models – “girls more compliant, girls more grateful for the opportunity.”
Plus ca change.
Middleton’s bright-eyed Peggy acts as a narrator, with Brown’s script – warmly directed by Lennon creator Bob Eaton - charting their journey in episodic fashion, punctuated by late-50s and early-60s hits including Ricky Nelson’s It’s Late, Eddie Cochran’s Come On Everybody, and Billy Fury’s Halfway to Paradise.
While the (mostly) linear structure gives it a clear narrative the similar nature of many of the scenes – the girls singing backing vocals for mostly young male artists on a variety of stages - can mean it ends up feeling a bit repetitive. Perhaps a little pruning is in order?
That said, the performances are smart and engaging and there’s some great singing and versatile musicianship from the show’s all-female cast under the expert eye of musical director Jess Dives – girls DO play guitars, along with drums, double bass, and a quartet of saxophones.
While their 'easy listening' style and (mostly) demure dance routines may not have had the oomph to survive rock 'n' roll and Beatlemania, as we learn in the show’s epilogue, the Vernons Girls still played their part in British music history.
Joyce married Marty Wilde and another Vernons Girl married Joe Brown, both going on to create pop music dynasties. And others formed girl groups like The Breakaways, The Pearls – and The Ladybirds, who sang with Marc Bolan and Jimi Hendrix to name just two, supported Sandie Shaw in her Eurovision triumph and spent 12 years as unsung heroine backing vocalists on Top of the Pops.