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What The Women Did at the Southwark Playhouse

| Theatre | 23/01/2014

Alix Dunmore and Emily Bowker
Alix Dunmore and Emily Bowker. Photo by Philip Gammon

During the war (imagine me mimicking Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses), the range of roles women adopted grew exponentially. They were wives, mothers, munitions workers, land girls, nurses, war widows and so much more. What The Women Did, a triple bill of plays from Two’s Company demonstrates this range of roles to brilliant effect.

This triple bill features Luck of War by Gwen John, Handmaidens of Death by Herbert Tremaine (pseudonym of Maude Deuchar) and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals by J.M. Barrie. The plays have been excellent chosen to include both little known and well known writers, and to cover the various different themes of war. There are munitions girls, miscommunicated deaths, patriotism, and some unlikely friendships.

I walked in to the theatre to find the cast already onstage, spicing up our entrance with a selection of patriotic songs, including such well known classics as ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. Although this musical introduction was perhaps a little long, it managed to set the mood for a night spent in wartime England. The evening then started with Luck of War, a short play with a small cast in which a soldier, long thought dead, returns from the Front. Though emotionally powerful (what would you do if you’d moved on and suddenly the person you mourned rocks up at your doorstep?), this play lacked something the other two had. I’m unsure whether it is a script thing or an actor thing but it was definitely missing something. I am inclined to go with the former as it was well acted and well put together. It just lacked the punch of the other two.

Between the first and second plays, the stage undergoes a transformation. Whilst in the first scene we are in the kitchen, in the second we are outside of a house. The set, designed brilliantly by Alex Marker, moves like sliding doors to show the change from inside to outside. I expected a similar change to happen between the second and third plays but, keeping us on our toes, the stage is changed part way through the action.

The second play, Handmaidens of Death, far outshone the other two. It starts as a wonderfully comic and light-hearted look at a group of unmarried ‘canary girls’ (munitions workers) who are convinced they’ll be old maids, if they are not already. There is a startling change of tone part way through as the entire theatre is plunged into darkness in a faux blackout. As your eyes adjust to the dark, shapes and the white of the odd garment become apparent on stage until parts of the stage are illuminated in a chilling climax. Out of the entire evening, this scene is what stood out – the humour mixed with such a disquieting climatic moment has left a lasting impression on me.

After a haunting second part, the third play returns to light-hearted comic fun, but this time with a hint of underlying sadness. Simon Darwen and Susan Wooldridge in the two lead roles perform the parts of lonely woman and young, orphan soldier with such warmth of heart it is hard not to fall for them both. The Old Lady Shows Her Medals was perfectly chosen to end the evening on a positive note with a hint of ambiguity. In fact, the order of the three plays is expertly planned to take the audience on a pretty emotional journey through the various experiences of women, and through the women, the male experience also.

What The Women Did will join the many new and rediscovered plays commemorating the World War One Centenary. I would highly recommend this evening of plays for a snapshot into the lives of women during the war. It may not cover the whole female experience but it does counter the assumption that women were solely keeping the home fires burning (even if they do sing the song). What The Women Did will be at the Southwark Playhouse until February 15th. For more information and tickets visit

Simon Darwen and Susan Wooldridge. Photo by Philip Gammon.

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