While theatre often prompts its audiences to ask questions about the world we live in, it can also ask us to reflect on it, along with specific moments in history. That’s exactly what Alice Nutter’s new play Barnbow Canaries asks its audiences to do, and brings us into the world of female munitions workers during the First World War. Housed in the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Courtyard Theatre, and directed by Kate Wasserberg, I was intrigued to see how Nutter had realised this poignant moment in our history.
Barnbow Canaries is set in 1916, when female citizens were being drafted in to take over the jobs left behind by the men of the country with increasing pace. There grew to be a large demand for shells during the period, and so more women joined munitions factories across the country. Barnbow in Leeds was one such factory. There, we meet sisters Agnes and Edith (Colette O’Rourke and Tilly Steele respectively), who revel in their new independence as factory workers. However, it isn’t long before the side effects of the dangerous work and the pressures of the war mount up and change their lives forever.
And so the stage is set for a moving, inspiring narrative of solidarity and determination. But could the handful of professional actors and an ensemble of community performers carry it and convey it to the audience? Well, I’m very pleased to report that they did. The quality of characterisation across the board is high: O’Rourke and Steele demonstrate some stunning work in this department. There’s a flickering, dynamic chemistry between them that draws the audience in and makes the play’s hard-hitting, thought-provoking punch that little bit more powerful. There are also some well-considered, enjoyable performances from Jade Ogugua as fellow factory worker Swifty and Dominic Gately as factory supervisor Parkin.
Surrounding these high quality performances is a scenography that enhances and solidifies Nutter’s play-world. There’s a visually simple set from Mark Bailey, consisting of a few work benches covered with shells, corrugated iron flats that slide in to divide up the stage and industrial frameworks that sit at the sides of the space. Such a simple set design places real emphasis on the large company of performers, which makes the production all the more engaging. The same can be said of Katy Morison’s lighting design, which consists of bright washes of yellows and orange, occasionally offset by a slightly cooler palette to assist in giving the production a dynamic atmosphere.
Dyfan Jones’s various aspects of sound design are certainly a treat in this production. There’s a mixture of modern beats, forged from the percussive sounds of tapping on shells and work benches, as well as slightly electronic flourishes giving the production a sense of modernity. But by far my favourite aspect of Jones’s sound design has to be the incorporation of live music and songs.
These are sparse, short musical interludes that perfectly generate a warm atmosphere and a stark contrast to the bleakness of the play-world outside of the Barnbow factory. For instance, early on in the play we see the company erupt into a wellspring of companionship, singing an upbeat song about the work they do in the factory as “Barnbow lasses”. There’s also a lovely intimate moment where Steele plays a sparse motivational song on piano, and completely draws the smiling audience’s focus.
Barnbow Canaries is special: it’s a warm, often funny and often heart-breaking piece that asks audiences to reflect on its subject matter frequently. It tells an essential story – one of solidarity, determination and courage – that we can all take something away from.
Barnbow Canaries is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 9 July. For more information and tickets, visit the West Yorkshire Playhouse website. Photo: Anthony Robling