Walking across the Orange Tree stage floor to get to your seats is quite a treat at this production, as you get to move across the very authentic cracked concrete-looking floor, lumps, bumps and all. The visual effect of this is excellent: when combined with a beautifully measured soundscape and some well-designed, atmosphere-driven lighting, it transports you instantly to the middle of a city under siege by bombers.
The reason for the bombers is the Second World War, and we find ourselves in the depths of Glasgow. The play, by Sharman Macdonald, tells the story of the tragic romance between Isla, who’s been away, and naval officer Mackenzie. Throughout the play she is influenced by not only her strong will, but also her hard-nosed mother and her caring, drunk father. Meanwhile Mackenzie is haunted by a lady from his past who unexpectedly returns. The obstacles that their relationship must overcome are heightened by the perils and pressures of war, and it deftly explores the changes that circumstances bring out in people.
The first thing that is clear is that the accents have been scrupulously taken care of in rehearsals. There’s a lot of regional dialect and strong accents throughout, and they are excellently adhered to, particularly in Mackenzie. Played by Mark Edel-Hunt, he really gets into his speeches when talking to God. The performances are strong and it’s very easy to suspend disbelief, as you’re drawn into the tense atmosphere of the family’s home or the exchanges between people on the street.
Edel-Hunt steals the show, with his sweeping soliloquies on the beauty of the fairer sex and how much he wants to survive. There is intensity, passion and intelligence in the delivery, but also enough stillness and melancholy to bring a humanity and balance to the role. He is matched excellently by Abigail Lawrie as Isla, who shows fight and confidence that ensnare Mackenzie. Her conflicting feelings towards her mother are nicely drawn out, and you can feel the emotional turmoil as she returns to her family home. Lorraine Pilkington responds to this with steely energy as Maggie, and slots easily into the restless, tough role of matriarch, juxtaposed with Steve Nicolson’s staunch but jovial Alec. His performance brings a much-appreciated humour to the production, and his anecdotes and constant search for a dram more are warmly delivered. Sarah-Jayne Butler is a cool, silent predator as Cath, adding to the mystery of the show. More importantly though, throughout the piece the relationships between each character are carefully developed, and emotional and power balances carefully considered, especially with the theme of social expectations of the time running throughout the play.
The audience respond well to these relationships, in part because of the excellent atmosphere created through the design. The uplighting from the concrete floor brilliantly captures the fractured flashes of an air raid blackout, as well as the dimness and pessimism of the times, reflected in the characters’ expressions. The soundscape, which is present for much of the play, works very well in helping to create the impression of a haunted, crumbling city. Considering that the only notable set is a table and three stools, this is testament to the real impact that the technical aspects have.
The decision to stage this play in the round is vindicated, as bar one small scene, it does not affect the audience’s ability to experience the action. It adds to a real sense of being in the setting with the characters, which is important, particularly when projecting the emotional strains brought about by the play’s setting. The only issue from where I sat was that I could see directly into the proj box, and with a fair number of scenes with relatively dim lighting, this was actually quite distracting – especially having the lady calling the show directly in my eyeline. I am also interested in the difference in delivery between the older and younger characters. The direction highlights the fact that the two sets of characters talk very differently, with contrasting rhythms and the older ones notably repeating themselves a lot, and this was intriguingly brought out.
Overall, this is a very complete production. There are elements of the script that are quite slow and a little needless, amongst large portions of really engaging writing. There are also a couple of opportunities for the show to end before it actually does, but on the whole this is a really engaging watch.
When We Were Women is playing at the Orange Tree Theatre until 3 October. For more information and tickets, see the Orange Tree Theatre website. Photo by Ben Broomfield