Sarah Daniels’s The Gut Girls follows the women of Deptford Foreign Cattle Market, who work 12 hours per day chopping meat for London’s many butchers. The women earn a decent living, but they are maltreated and marginalised, stuck in a seemingly less-than-desirable way of life, until the upper-class Lady Helena decides to ‘improve’ them and teach them to be proper ladies, training them for a life as serving girls. However, this is far from an improvement; London high society is not for everyone, and the tough girls of the cattle market don’t do well there.
This is a really interesting play which contrasts the poor conditions of working class life with the pristine privilege of their social superiors. Much as their lives are full of hardships, the gut girls seem happy in the beginning of the play; unity of the working girls creates a positive outlook on life and seems to make their troubles feel small. The upper classes, on the other hand, do not seem as happy; Priscilla lives under an oppressive husband, while Lady Helena
Gemma Paget played a delightfully prim Lady Helena, and her consistently strong stage presence made her the centre of every scene, even those in which the gut girls were vying to be the main focus. Appropriately preachy and with intentions far beyond her abilities in reforming the working girls, she perfectly emphasised the extreme differences between the upper and lower classes at the time. Also excellent was Beth Eyre as both the socialist reformer Ellen and as the depressed, downtrodden upper-class Priscilla. The level of contrast between these two characters showed impressive range, and the use of one woman to convey both sides was a particularly useful device in demonstrating the great disparity between classes.
The men of the cast were also particularly versatile multi-rolers, and both Luke Stevenson and Oliver Malam proved themselves as very talented actors throughout the production. Stevenson’s multiple very different characters are of particular note; Len was suitably bumbling and lacking in social etiquette, while Lord Arthur Cuttle-Smythe was leering, unsettling, and at times strangely charming (though sadly in this role Stevenson was prevented from an altogether convincing portrayal by his hair, which was not as appropriate for this character as for the others).
Slightly less convincing was Billie Fulford-Brown as Polly, although this seemed to be down to the director’s choices rather than any lack of acting talent on Fulford-Brown’s part. I felt that the meat-based jokes in the first scene of the play were massively underplayed and would have done better to set up the character as energetic, jokey and full of heart had they been more of a focus. I also didn’t really get the sense of Polly as a bit of a lumbering fool, as the physicality was relatively feminine and the character seemed to have her wits about her throughout.
Indeed, throughout the play I felt that, while performances were usually very strong, the direction seemed lacking, and it was not only the character of Polly that felt underplayed. I also found Maggie and Lord Tartaden’s pivotal scene in the second act to be lacking; considering that this contains a major revelation about a key character I was surprised that the direction had not encouraged more of a contrast between the two faces of Tartaden. The scene at the girls’ club with the tea pouring was also, for me, not quite enough; I would have liked to see the working girls behaving worse and being more of an adequate distraction to the other women.
However this said, the group scenes were pleasingly riotous and did well to showcase the lack of propriety and high manners in working class society. Especially enjoyable was the scene in the music hall, which was perfectly pitched by every actor on stage. The four gut girls in the scene made enough noise to convince us of the loudness of the whole crowd, and the clear differences between them and Lady Priscilla served once again to contrast the different classes very well.
On the whole this is a solid production, which does well to showcase the class conflict and poor living conditions of the time. The ignorance of the upper class towards the working classes’ plight, and their ineffectual moves towards solving it, drew an interesting parallel with modern politics. Direction and performance conveyed the essential message of the play, encouraging its audience to advocate equality and acknowledge all social classes as of equal standing.
OutFox’s version of The Gut Girls really merits seeing; the performances are strong, the vision is cohesive, and there are very few weak moments which at all detract from the overall feeling of the piece. The audience is drawn into the story, and leaves really thinking on what they have seen, making this a very strong and exciting piece of Fringe theatre.
The Gut Girls plays The Jack Studio Theatre until Saturday 29 March. For more information and tickets, see The Jack Studio Theatre website.