What the Women Did opens charmingly, nostalgically, with the cast grouped around the piano singing classic great wartime songs together. It sets the tone admirably for the evening – community, communality, warmth and a sprinkling of sentiment.
The trilogy is part of Two’s Company’s ‘Forgotten Voices from the Great War’ season, revived at the Southwark for the 1914 centenary. It lives up to this epithet well: both playwrights and the women’s voices explored in the plays are unknown, semi-undiscovered and Two’s Company should be lauded for bringing them to the stage again for the centenary. Unfortunately, the elements of this production do not always live up to the material.
In terms of plotting, all three pieces are ingenious and inventive. The evening opens with Luck of War by Gwen John, the story of a woman who believes her possibly abusive husband has been killed at the front, and so re-marries her safe and reliable lodger, Amos Crispin (Matthew Cottle). When her husband returns, wounded, she is faced with a choice.
All three pieces neatly avoid the mawkish and the sentimental, and Luck of War is no exception. It uncompromisingly examines the nitty-gritty domesticity of women’s lives and the practicalities that faced widows (or perceived widows), having only separation allowances to support themselves and their children. There is nothing romantic about Ann Hemingway’s re-marriage. Victoria Gee’s Ann is practical, brisk and no-nonsense, rendering the end of the piece all the more moving.
The most relevant and powerful debate came in the second piece, Handmaidens of Death. Probably the weakest of the three pieces in terms of plotting, Herbert Tremaine’s piece contains the most compelling insight into the lives of young women in the Great War. The piece centres on five munitions workers, unlikely friends thrown together across class borders because none of them are married. Millie (Alix Dunmore) and Clara (Emily Bowker) argue about what it means to be without a husband. For Millie, it is not ‘her war’: her brother, killed at the front, was fighting for his wife not his sister. Clara celebrates their independence, their chance during the war to work for themselves and, above all, their freedom: she is no-one’s property, nor does she wish to be.
Their dialogue and relationship explores the complexities and ambivalences thrown up for unmarried women of WWI (candidates for the quintessential forgotten voices). What is most striking about it is how familiar and relevant these debates feel today, in the thick of the fourth wave of feminism. Clara wouldn’t be out of place as a left-wing commentator, or on the #NoMorePage3 campaign. The piece is strongly ambivalent about both women’s standpoints: while Clara is a feminist, is her standpoint born out of loneliness? Is Millie only able to relate to the world via her relationships with men? It poses many questions, with few answers.
The final piece of the evening, The Old Lady Shows Her Medals is beautifully plotted: a great companion to its antecedent, as ‘Mrs’ Dowey is like the unmarried girls of Handmaidens but 40 years older. Lonely and disaffected, feeling no connection to the men at the front, Mrs Dowey (Susan Wooldridge) chooses a soldier’s name from a newspaper to adopt as her son. However, when he appears in London and is brought to her front door by the reverend, she is compelled to deal with the consequences. Having earned a bit of sentiment, the piece delivers a bitter sweet reconciliation.
Matthew Cottle delivers the standout performances of the night: tender, spare and well-judged held pain as Amos in Luck of War, and later nimble-footed comedy and warmth as Reverend Wilkinson. It is a shame that the rest of the cast is slightly inconsistent, especially vocally. Some of the accents are wobbly and at times distracting, but perhaps will settle down during the run.
There is no doubt that plays like these three need to be performed. They are feminist in the purest sense: telling untold stories of women alone, who re-moulded themselves, their families, their societies and their identities in the absence of men. However, this is not a perfect evening: a clumsy transition at the beginning of Medals was a serious problem that I hope will be ironed out as the run progresses. Also, some of the plotting feels off kilter: a bizarre, magic realist ending to Handmaidens, an otherwise naturalistic piece, is a shame. However, while inconsistent in performance, this is an important evening of writing: if you’re interested in surprisingly cross-historical feminism, go.
What the Women Did plays in the Large at the Southwark Playhouse until 15 February. For more information see the Southwark Playhouse website.