Actor turned writer/director Alex McSweeney has illustrated one of the most important catalysts for the feminist movement in a new play. Drawing on historical facts regarding the ill-fated ‘canaries’ – the women who were yellow-tinged from exposure to the TNT shells they were employed to make – Out of the Cage is a poignant reminder about British history and the fight for equal pay. Unbeknownst to them, these women who made 80% of the weapons for the First World War were the brave pioneers of the feminism we are used to today.

There is so much to say that the text is a little heavy and the characters one-dimensional stereotypes, used as vehicles to propel the trajectory of the story. Despite this, Out of the Cage is a stellar production with a really talented cast and is a tribute to our gratitude to these women, who fought the battle at home whilst their men were at war.

The all-female cast beautifully bring to life our history, evoking real empathy for their quiet rebellion simmering beneath the surface. The ringleader, Jane Byass, is quietly resolute in her strength and is a driving force between the various Shell Shops across East London. Milly Finch is a great lead; the boundless bravery these women were capable of and forced to use is demonstrated wonderfully. Jill McAusland provides some much-needed comic relief with beautiful timing and is very memorable as Lil’ Ginny, the young girl desperately on the outside looking in.

I can’t say I’m a fan of musicals, however the cast’s rousing numbers are beautifully sung and, for me, thankfully kept to a minimal three. The lyrics are very touching and wonderfully composed by composer/sound designer John Chambers.

The first half is a little slow and lacks the appropriate build of tension, but the second certainly picks up. The mixed media, with real images of the ‘canaries’ and facts regarding the situation, are arresting and heart-wrenching. The weight of British history and heritage is encapsulated in a real clip and a summary of deaths from TNT factory explosions, a previously untold story narrated by a man.

What I thought was interesting is the view of war as liberation not only for the country, but for the people from each other: the liberation of these previously powerless women from their cages, becoming free people earning their own money and thereby attaining control of their futures by contributing to their society.

I really enjoyed the physical theatre aspect, and the representation of women as the machine powering the war is genuinely enjoyable to watch. Staged in a thrust format, the cast periodically rotate their positions to give the audience different perspectives. This use of artistic licence is incredibly creative by movement director Simon Pittman.

Despite my perceived issues, it is a very slick show and all involved should be pleased with this as an opening night performance. These women’s story is an inspiring and moving production.

Out of the Cage is playing until 14 February at the Park Theatre. For tickets and more information, see the Park Theatre website. Photo by Richard Davenport.