What The Women Did @ Southwark Playhouse, London – January 2014

This remounting of What The Women Did, ‘Two’s Company’’s triple bill of plays about the First World War, marks several special anniversaries: the centenary of the Great War itself, ten years since the first production of the piece at Southwark Playhouse in 2004 and twenty years since the theatre itself opened.

The title of the trilogy and the way it has been billed are possibly both a little misleading in that they suggest a series of works that concern the plights of strong women who are left at home to keep families and lives together whilst husbands go to war, no questions asked. I was expecting a large dose of some possibly quite dull ‘keep the home fires burning’ gumpf, conveying quite literally ‘what the women did’. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each play is as focused on the continuing, usually overwhelming, impact on women of men, whether they are absent through war or whether they have never been there in the first place. Whilst war is of course the common backdrop, at times it almost becomes a side issue. These plays are full of confusion and emotional turmoil, so much at times, that the war is forgotten. The very recognizable dilemmas and longings being portrayed on stage are often symptoms simply of being female and alone.

In Luck of War, a war widow recently remarried and pregnant has the difficult task of welcoming home her maimed first husband, presumed dead. Handmaidens of Death presents a gaggle of female munitions workers whose prime purpose in life appears to be to find a male soul mate. What is striking about this particular play is that despite the very obvious class divide, the women are exactly the same; strongly united through the predicament of war and in their plights for love and companionship. JM Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals is a poignant account of the rivalry between four amusing charladies as they compete to have the bravest son at the front. Only one of them doesn’t have a son at all and is drawn into a complex web of manipulation. It seems JM Barrie’s preoccupation with the ‘son’ figure found its way into his drama, as well as his famous prose.

All three pieces are pacy and slick with some intelligent direction from Tricia Thorns. One particular highlight is the German soldiers who return to proposition the girls in Handmaidens of Death. Their disembodied voices are perfect and the dancing embers of their cigarettes in the darkness and the flashes of gore as they are briefly revealed are incredibly profound images. Alex Marker’s fluid design is also interesting and inspired, moulding itself perfectly to the three different settings.

The whole company provide consistently good acting, but particularly worthy of mention are Matthew Cottle, who gives a particularly insightful portrayal of the awkwardly placed Amos in Luck of War and Victoria Gee, who merges gormlessness and guilt perfectly in the same play. The Old Lady Shows Her Medals also spawns two fine performances in the shape of protagonists Mrs Dowey (Susan Wooldridge) and Kenneth Dowey, her pretend son (Simon Darwen). Both are utterly convincing as they play out the lies and deception and Darwen, perfect as the strapping Scotsman, is particularly adept at conveying uncomfortable, pathos-inducing exploitation. His sporran is too high, though; this, I have on good authority 🙂

What The Women Did runs at Southwark Playhouse until 15th February.

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