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What The Women Did

With November just around the corner, it is customary for the Nation’s thoughts to turn towards Armistice and Remembrance, not so much of war itself (for war is not glorious), but of solidarity, strength, resolve, resourcefulness, resoluteness, commitment, sacrifice, family and community. Driving into Lyndhurst earlier in the week, the ‘Lest We Forget’ silhouette of a soldier caught my eye on entering the village and I was reminded of the young men who left their homes and families to fight, whether voluntarily or through conscription, in order to defend King and Country – and the great many who didn’t return.

Lyndhurst Drama and Musical Society (LDMS) have chosen for their Autumn production to commemorate the contribution of so many individuals and communities to the War – but they have chosen to focus on the female perspective and their contribution. This seems a fitting theme as not only is it the centenary of the end of the First World War, but the production’s opening night coincided with the day it was announced that women may now apply for any British military role, and also this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote.

If you think of the Suffragette movement, then the name Emily Pankhurst springs to mind and Director Michel Arkle has devised a production that pays tribute to the Pankhurst name and ideals, but although this Remembrance of WW1 predominantly focuses on the women, it is more than a piece of feminist or political theatre; it includes poems and songs from the period, perceptive and insightful observations, and extracts from two striking plays (Handmaidens Of Death by Herbert Tremaine – Maude Deuchar’s pseudonym – and The Old Lady Shows Her Medals by JM Barrie).

Both plays are ideal pieces to showcase the depth of acting ability within LDMS, as each play is full of comic touches, drama and poignancy, allowing the talented cast to display the variety of accents that they have mastered (most notably Donna West, Hannah Marks, Sarah Short and Stevie Parker), terrific comic timing and a wide gamut of emotional depth (standout performances again from Marks, Short and Parker). But the men also feature significantly, from the five (unnamed or same-named?) soldiers in ‘Handmaidens’ to the young Dowey in ‘The Old Lady’ (Gabe Short); without wanting to divulge spoilers, the five soldiers leave a most striking and powerful image that has impressed itself into my memory, while the relationship and interaction between Gabe and Sarah Short’s characters are full of emotion and poignancy, and I’m not ashamed to say there was a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat.

The men also deliver the most emotive poems for me, each poem written by a woman which I find most poetic; as LDMS’s press release states, “Women took to their pen writing powerfully evocative material about their lost generation” and that lost generation was the young men. Jack Barnett (Over The Top), Mike Watson (The Deserter) and Rupert Bogarde (The Convalescent) particularly struck a chord for me with their passionate and heartfelt renditions of these respective poems.

Yet this isn’t just an evening of heart-wrenching emotional drama; it also celebrates the joire de vivre and indomitable spirit of that generation through the comic elements of the plays and the The Concert Party in both parts of the evening, where, in another tribute to women’s contribution to the War effort (in this case, the concert tours to the Front by Lena Ashwell), community singing is positively encouraged with the songs that would have been sung in the fallout shelters and Music Halls up and down the land. The ensemble singing is lively and melodious, and although some of the solo voices are not the strongest, their voices are true, clear, with excellent diction and absolutely charming. ‘Danny Boy’ is particularly sung beautifully in quite a haunting way.

It’s such a pity that there were some uses of the prompt tonight, undoubtedly down to opening night nerves which should dissipate after an otherwise successful first night. Arkle has ensured a great pace, wonderful characterisations, a cohesive piece of narrative across the various snapshots of life in Wartime Britain and terrific attention to detail. The set is simple but cleverly designed to be changed with minimal set dressing alterations to various locations, the lighting is atmospheric (from the uplights representing the footlights of the old Music Hall venues, casting different and interesting lighting angles, to the dim, almost barely distinguishable flickering effect of candlelight) and the few sound effects are well executed. Special mention must be made of the outstanding array of costumes (Di Buck, Sarah Short and Jo Rainforth) and hair and make-up (Rainforth and Keisha Garner), each perfect for the era, performers and dramatic aspects of the production.