Review: What The Women Did, Southwark Playhouse

“Any of our group would walk out with a German, a Hindu or a Belgian.
‘Oh no, not a Belgian'” 

The centenary of the First World War will doubtless be marked in many a way in the nation’s theatre so the Southwark Playhouse have wisely got in early with this triple bill of lesser known plays which focuses on those left behind. What The Women Did features three works which delve into the experiences of not just the mothers, wives and girlfriends, but all the women who got on with the job of making society continue in such horrific circumstances, showing the difficulties faced in day-to-day living.

Gwen John’s Luck of War explores the unfortunate awkwardness, that must have been more common than is ever acknowledged, experienced by Ann Hemingway as her presumed dead husband turns up on the doorstep on crutches. It’s awkward because assuming herself a widow, she has remarried and thus is now a bigamist. Victoria Gee’s brummie bolshiness is of course thrown by the situation, but the short play wraps up a little too tweely to really have an impact. 

The Handmaidens of Death by Herbert Tremaine (a pseudonym for Maud Deuchar which is enough of an issue itself) is a curious piece, and another that feels entirely rooted in genuine scenarios. Here, the enmity of a group of factory workers is turned on the few women among them who have a man – the women with boyfriends serving in the field and the war widows who have gotten remarried – their sexual jealousy reminding us that the wants and desires of everyday life were still present whilst battle raged.

And last up is The Old Lady Shows Her Medals by JM Barrie, the least ‘realistic’ set-up of the three but consequently the most convincing. Determined to keep face with her colleagues with sons in the forces, Susan Wooldridge’s Mrs Dowey invents a hero of her own, plucking a name from the paper. And when that soldier inevitably turns up, and is an orphan, the mutual convenience of the situation is apparent to both and so a touching reunion brings them an unexpected source of succour. Wooldridge and Simon Darwen give the performances of the night here.

There’s a slight unevenness to the evening, unsurprising given its varied provenances, but there’s also a compelling raison d’être that we never lose sight of, in how the privations of wartime are not just felt by those fighting the battle and that the stories of the women who were left behind are just as valuable and important. A cheery singsong around the piano lends period charm to the pre-show entertainment but by the end, there is no doubting the gravity of what was experienced a century ago. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 15th February

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