sun 26/05/2024

What the Women Did, Southwark Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

What the Women Did, Southwark Playhouse

What the Women Did, Southwark Playhouse

A trio of "forgotten" plays highlights the experiences of women during the First World War

Simon Darwen and Susan Wooldridge in J M Barrie's "The Old Lady and Her Medals"Philip Gammon

Barely a month of 2014 has passed, and yet already the opportunities to remember the First World War seem to be presenting themselves at every turn. In this trio of short plays, we get a more unusual treatment of the anniversary  as the overall title suggests, the purpose is to hear the voices that don't sound so loudly across the intervening hundred years. We are here to understand what the women did in the war.

The first of the three plays, Luck of War by Gwen John, presents a scenario that must have occurred far more frequently than official histories record. Ann Hemingway, played with grim passion here by Victoria Gee (pictured below), has recently remarried after her husband has been missing from the trenches for over six months, presumed killed. When said husband then hobbles back through the door, she and her children have to find a way to make him understand that as far as they were concerned, he is dead, and that a return to the way they were isn't as simple as he might think. It's an intriguing premise, and while the central trio are finely drawn, the supposedly Midlands accents have a tendency to wander into the Chaucerian, and the resolution is rather too neatly sentimental to be entirely convincing.

It's high time we remembered that this war wasn't just fought on the battlefieldIt is followed by further discussion of how single women fared during the war  although this time they are not widows but young "old maids", working in a munitions factory and despairing at the lack of "fellas" to walk out with. While some of the dialogue in Maude Deuchar's Handmaidens of Death feels clunky and the play's morbid conclusion verges on the laughable, it does remind us that the war made thousands of women into involuntary spinsters. Here, these women are permitted to voice their sexual desires and frustrations - something that is all too rare in the better-known writings of the time.

Lucy Shaw, Matthew Cottle and Victoria Gee in "Luck of War"The best, though, comes last, in the form of J M Barrie's The Old Lady Shows Her Medals. Here, we are concerned not with wifehood, but with motherhood, as Barrie depicts a group of charwomen trying to outdo each other with tales of their boys at the front. Mrs Dowey (played by Susan Wooldridge in the standout performance of the evening) has no son, so has chosen a name at random from the newspaper so as to keep up with her fellows and maintain the fiction that it is "her war" just as much as theirs.

When her "son" unexpectedly appears at her door, both she and the unknown young soldier must confront what it means to be alone during wartime, and whether familial bonds can spring into being where no blood ties exist. Simple pleasures, like a hot bath or a cup of tea, draw them closer in a brilliantly complex exploration of where love and pragmatism intersect. Best of all, Barrie's play is saved from the sentimentality of the previous two pieces by the sharpness of its humour, and by the qualified, transient nature of the happiness its characters are permitted to enjoy.

It can be a risky thing to rediscover "forgotten" plays and bring them back to the stage again. Not everything that has disappeared from the repertoire is a lost gem in need of rediscovery. But when such revivals are done with an overarching theme and purpose, it can work even if the quality of the drama is a bit patchy. There is a variety of women's experience here  wives, mothers, girls, sweethearts, spinsters  that rarely breaks through the male-focused literature that dominates the war canon. A hundred years on, it's high time we were reminded that this war wasn't just fought on the battlefield.

Not everything that has disappeared from the repertoire is a lost gem in need of rediscovery


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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