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WHAT THE WOMEN DID Southwark Playhouse, SE1

SMALL LIVES IN THE GREAT WAR:   FORGOTTEN VOICES HEARD AND HONOURED

Get seated ten minutes early.    In Alex Marker’s humbly clever set, a bricky terraced house,  the cast sing casually round a piano and the long, long trail of the century winds backward:   Pack up your Troubles, a soldiers’ jokey “If you were the only Boche in the trench..” and the  sinister jollity of  “We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go..”.  So before any theatre has even taken place,  tears spring for the dead boys of long ago.  Director Tricia Thorne has craftily primed us.

This triple bill from Two’s Company – first played in 2004 – is of plays from 1917 and 1918 about women in the Great War.   So it breathes contemporary raw feeling,  not the retrospective anger of Oh What a Lovely War or James Dacre’s  recent marvellous revival of the 1981The Accrington Pals.    The first,  by Gwen John – not the artist –  shows a war widow (Victoria Gee,  whose strong narrow face and spare frame make her immediately convincing in period).  She has remarried a shy local (Matthew Cottle) after the erroneous report of her husband’s death. He,  a powerful Simon Darwen,  reappears crippled and angry.  With two small children, beautifully played supping milk at the tea-table and eyeing their unfamiliar father, the couple negotiate emotion and embarrassment.  In a wonderfully truthful  line about remarrying rapidly in the shock of widowhood the wife  explains  “Thinking o’thee, I were softened towards th’whole world”.

The second play by Maude Deuchar shows a gaggle of “canary girls” – munitions workers whose skin turned yellow with TNT poison.   On a lunch-break they josh about the fact “husbands are rationed”:   they will become that inter-war generation dismissed as “superfluous women”.   Some laugh at the frivolous idea of putting signed notes in the shells,  as a macabre “present” to Fritz.   At which point I thought it was just an interesting slice-of-life piece about the banality and boredom and compromise and loneliness of their lot.   I misjudged it.

For the terrifying second scene takes place on the same doorstep in near-darkness, as the girls giggle and flirt with soldiers seen only as shadows and glowing cigarettes.  Unease grows: we work out before they do what strange thing is going on,  but the fear does not lessen,  and there is a real flesh-tingling moment of shock. Significantly, this play was not performed until the war was over. It is ahead of its time in sentiment.
And so to the third, by J.M.Barrie.  His typically playful-sentimental notion is of an unmarried Scottish charwoman who feels left out amid her Cockney gossips.  They all have sons in uniform and scoff at women with none – “It’s not their war”. So ‘Mrs’ Dowey (Susan Wooldridge) invents a son, taking a real name from  news of the Black Watch regiment, and fakes his letters.

I admit to a certain hostility at the start – Barrie does caricature middle-aged women  woefully,  as competitive and shallow.  But the awkward arrival of Darwen as the ‘son’ , an orphan on leave who is initially furious at the deception,  heralds a completely delightful and artfully credible two-hander.  What Barrie clearly does know is how mothers secretly rather enjoy being barracked and teased by great strapping sons.  Wooldridge gives the old lady a wonderful mischievousness, Darwen blossoms from sullenness to affection.  And against my will, and across a century, the tears rose again.
box office 020 7407 0234  to 15 Feb

Rating: four4 Meece Rating

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