Set in the notorious Bessborough Mother and Baby home in Cork, Sisters of Charity shares an insight into the lives of two ‘fallen women’ – unmarried mothers who are ‘supported’ and concealed by the Catholic church.
The black box theatre is dressed only with a bed and a small white basket, which mirrors the bleakness of the tale, as does some foreboding music.
Maggie, played by the writer of the piece, Aurelia Gage, is dressed in an all-grey tunic and veil of a nun, and just as I am preparing myself for a heavy and dismal mood, Maggie sits on the bed and bites her toenail with her mouth. This choice is golden, whether it was by Gage, or the director of the piece Adelina Uglow, for it immediately brings humanity to the character, which is necessary to keep us invested in such a dark narrative.
We hear some frightening sounds, before Maggie leaps up and says goodnight to a sister that we cannot see. This is a recurring theme throughout the play, and whilst it has great potential, I’m not quite sure it works, but it’s a brave choice and I like that.
Not long after, we are introduced to Janine, played by Chloe Taplin, who is the opposite of Maggie in temperament, with her gutsy flare and erratic nature. At first, Janine is hard to sympathise with, for her rudeness and harsh words to Maggie, but eventually we are sold by her lovable and warm-hearted personality. Janine and Maggie’s friendship is cemented after a bedtime toilet misfortune, which is a lovely choice by Gage to reinforce the girls’ friendship; this intimate moment brings back the empathy and vulnerability we feel for the girls.
Initially, the piece is quite slow paced, but there are also some wonderfully witty lines and facial expressions, which really help break up the dreariness. It’s a shame that the audience is so dry tonight, because a lot of the comedy in the piece goes unappreciated.
The structure of the play is repetitive, made up of lots of short scenes with the same routine, which are in danger of merging into one, but there’s also something quite charming and likeable about this familiarity of the everyday routine. I also really enjoy the moments of silent acting, which offer an accurate reflection of the tension and sincerity surrounding the piece.
Gage portrays the sullen, anxious and withdrawn character of Maggie with realism and a natural flair. What I really like about Gage’s depiction is that she doesn’t try to make Maggie especially likeable, she just is who she is, and we grow to love her for it anyway. Meanwhile Taplin provides the perfect juxtaposition, with her charming portrayal of the energetic Janine, who is full of bubbly personality.
There are some lovely moments in this story, such as the blunt, innocent conversation about women giving birth. I also really appreciate the fact that, whilst one could be forgiven for thinking this play was set a hundred years ago, a clever mention of John Wayne and Audrey Hepburn brings home to us how recently these horrific real-life events occurred.
The play takes a while to get going, but once it has warmed up, it blossoms into a moving account, and I am particularly engrossed by Maggie’s poignant monologue towards the end of the story. This play has great potential and offers us a fascinating insight into the untold stories of these mistreated young women, stories which certainly need to be told.
Sisters of Charity is showing at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre until 7 August. For more information and tickets, see Camden Fringe’s website.