Saturday 12 November 2011

The Firewatchers - Laura Stevens @ Old Red Lion Theatre

Set in London in the midst of World War Two, this was a suitable play to watch on 11/11/11.  Immediately as the lights went down, the audience were plunged into the era, the lights fading up onto a moonlit rooftop decorated with gas masks, hard hats and an old wireless.

The play, newly written by Laura Stevens, is a two woman play depicting the role of the firewatchers in WWII - women who stood guard on roofs during the nights to detect fires and call for aid.  It was a time where women were called for compulsory work, their role in society becoming increasingly important and leading eventually to their emancipation.  Together, they were thrown into a melting pot of class divisions, but war only disintegrated these distinctions to an extent.

It's this theme that the play explores.  Our two women are laddish, cockney lass Jean (Michelle Tate) and high-class citizen Catherine (Abigail Thaw).  At first, they are simply caricatures - Jean your typical poster girl, Catherine tottering in wearing high heels and a dress totally unsuited to the work.  Jean works herself to exhaustion to bring money in for her poor family; Catherine, ever the patriot, is desperate to "do her bit" for the country on a night away from her residence.  As the play proceeds, their distinct and opposing cultural differences are somewhat put aside, though never totally forgotten.  As both women embark on a masculine line of work they struggle to retain some element of their femininity - even if simply a spot of lippy in case of death.  However, whilst they were likeable and well-rounded, the play was let down by the narrative.  Stevens's script had some amusing moments, but lacked direction and left the audience waiting for a thrilling twist that never came.  Instead, it's as if two characters were constructed but Stevens was unsure what to actually do with them.  There was no climax, the ending just drifting off into the dimming lights.  Was the intention an authentic slice of history presented in theatrical form?  Or a slice of feminism still relevant to the women of today?

Either way, the performances were strong.  Despite the potentially grating nature of the women, they were full of charm and their individual plights were easy to empathise with.  Whilst The Firewatchers failed to provide a gripping narrative, it did present a new take on a familiar period of modern history.