Musicals - Theatre is cashing in on TV's mass appeal, but a good show requires more than bums on sea

Girl-on-girl fights, lesbian love action and prison riots: this month foul play and even fouler mouths jump from the small screen to the stage as Bad Girls: the musical hits West Yorkshire Playhouse.

For anyone not familiar with the long-running ITV drama on which this musical is based, it depicts the lives, loves and lewd behaviour of the female inmates of HMP Larkhall's G Wing. Somewhat eclipsed in profile by its spectacularly silly, glamorous younger sister Footballers' Wives, Bad Girls is none the less hugely popular. Even the seventh, most recent series regularly pulled in five million viewers, and the show has been syndicated overseas.

The success of Jerry Springer: the opera has clearly prompted theatres to take television spin-offs seriously, and it's easy to see why. Most Bad Girls viewers are not your average theatregoers, which makes the stage show an attractive prospect for the number-crunchers at the Arts Council. A popular TV series gives a musical a head start with theatre audiences in a cut-throat market: Eric Idle's Spamalot, "lovingly ripped off from Monty Python", was a huge hit in the States, and opens in London in October.

Though film and theatre have long been bedfellows, theatrical adaptations from the small screen are relatively new. "Theatre's view of TV has changed recently," says Maggie Norris, director of Bad Girls. "Jerry Springer altered things radically and totally defied all expectations."

One of the positive legacies of Jerry Springer was that it showed a mass audience that the theatre does not have to be a refined preserve of the upper classes. With its riot of swearing, explosions of laughter and audience interplay, it proved that a musical could be clever, critically acclaimed and an absolute hoot.

But where Jerry Springer was a stinging satire on the whole medium of television, the theatrical adaptation of Bad Girls risks seeming like crude commercialism. Worse still, it smacks of snobbery - yet another attempt to cash in on our national pastime of ridiculing so-called "chavs". The evidence suggests that, whatever we might say about irony, deep down we Brits simply love laughing at life's misfits and airheads.

Norris is adamant that money isn't the focus. "When I'm talking to people about the show, they tend to assume that there's some exploitative angle - that we are trying to cash in on a big successful series," she says. "But when people see it, I think it will become clear that actually, the opposite is true."

She also emphasises that the show is not just fluff; it has a real social role in highlighting the overlooked issue of women in prisons. "Top of my agenda is the seriousness of the subject matter and not trivialising that," the director says. "It's about getting the balance right between the fun and the seriousness. The writing team calls it 'subversion by seduction'. The idea is to seduce the audience with exciting stories but then start to examine an incredibly serious subject."

Norris points to how popular the series is with women in prisons, and to the cross-section of female inmates depicted in the musical. One character has mental health difficulties and should be in a different care institution. Another tries to mother her child from inside.

Yet it is doubtful whether Bad Girls would have made it on to the stage without the marketing power of the TV brand. "These days if you want a musical to be successful you have to have a well-known brand," says the theatre critic Matt Wolf. "In the old days you had to have big-name personalities involved, but now it's about having an instantly recognisable title. I'm not sure it's about creativity at all."

Wolf points out that theatre will run into problems if it tries to compete with television's value for money. "TV is free. So why would we want a West End full of musical adaptations?"

The question is whether there will be any genuine creativity lying behind the shiny veneer of the Bad Girls brand. There is reason to believe that there will, as West Yorkshire Playhouse is one of the best regional theatres in Britain, with a particularly good record in staging new drama. It has brought some promising talent on board for the production: one of the writers, Maureen Chadwick, previously worked on several musicals at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, where Jerry Springer was first staged. The show's artistic team certainly has the credentials to pack a Jerry Springer-style punch. If it can pull off more than a hollow stage version of the TV series, perhaps there is room in theatreland for a few bad girls.

Bad Girls: the musical opens on 27 May at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Quarry Hill, Leeds LS2 (0113 213 7700)

Jerry Springer: the opera is touring nationally. For more details, log on to www.jerryspringertheopera.com

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Heroes of our time - the top 50