2014/15 was one of the Orange Tree Theatre’s most successful seasons, not least for critical sensation Pomona that will now be hitting the West End and Manchester via the National Theatre. And so now their 2015/16 season begins, beginning with a perhaps unlikely play in co-production with Snapdragon: Sharman Macdonald’s When We Were Women.
Macdonald was one of many eminent feminist writers in the 80s, but is perhaps now best known as the mother of Keira Knightley. Her debut play, When I Was a Girl, I Used To Scream and Shout was award-winning, but her subsequent play When We Were Women was less successful. Perhaps this is because it apes some of the themes of the former play: the role of women in the family and the relationship between mother and daughter.
It’s also a quiet, understated piece, something that still rings true in this production – its first major revival. The narrative may be set in Scotland during WWII, but the war is merely a backdrop to MacDonald’s feminist agenda as her family drama slowly unfolds in non-linear fashion. Abigail Lawrie (BBC’s The Casual Vacancy) gives a confident performance as the headstrong Isla, a young woman trapped in a patriarchal society. She may be able to drink like her father but she can’t live like him; as he explains, men lose everything in marriage whereas women have everything to gain, it is their ultimate fate to be tied to a man. The man in question is the charming Mackenzie (Mark Edel-Hunt, who surely knows how to deliver a monologue), himself haunted by his ex-wife Cath (Sarah-Jayne Butler).
Macdonald certainly has a poetic sense for the rhythm and phrasing of the Glaswegian accent and her dialogue feels authentic to the time period, but in narrative terms the plot isn’t always lucid and rolls along at a slow pace with little dramatic impetus. It’s a detailed exploration of family values in wartime Scotland that’s particularly gloomy – a stark antithesis to a more positive new wave of feminism present in today’s society.
This production, though, is a study in atmosphere. In particular, Mike Robertson’s side and under-floor lighting not only provide grim mood in their suggestion of Blitz-torn streets, but reflect Isla’s world physically crumbling beneath her. Rainwater adds to the symbolism, whilst David Gregory’s sound design is minimal yet effective. This is an evocative piece in an intimate space, something The Orange Tree does well.
Yet When We Were Women makes for a cold and downbeat start to the theatre’s new season. Equally controversial yet exciting boundary-pushing works are surely yet to come.
Watch: When We Were Women runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 3rd October.
Photos: Ben Broomfield