Forgotten Voices from the Great War: What the Women Did

Reviewer's Rating

First performed in 2004, theatre group Two’s Company revisits a triptych of lesser-known plays that examine the role of women in the First World War.

A jovial atmosphere fills the Large House of the Southwark Playhouse, echoing the optimistic discourse at the outbreak of the War, as we are greeted with the company huddled around a piano, happily singing war ditties – all the classics are included: ‘Oh What A Lovely War’, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ et cetera.

As with any story relating to WW1 (or any war for that matter), a more sombre mood descends as the action unfolds. The first short play is Gwen John’s Luck of War: a soldier returns from the Front Line to find his wife remarried after being told of his death.

This is a laboured piece that lacks the pace and depth needed to get to the crux of this truly fascinating concept. Set in the Midlands, the accents aren’t as strong as they should be and there is an indulgence of bickering and shouting, which ultimately proves more irritating than anything.

This is followed by Maude Deuchar’s (pen name Herbert Tremaine) Handmaidens of Death, which tells the story of a group of female munitions workers in London, 1918, who fear the depleting numbers of men will affect their chances of matrimony (and subsequent position in society). Larking around, the ladies put messages in the bombs labelled ‘To Fritz’ and in one of the most remarkable and powerful scenes they see the consequences of their actions.

Deuchar raises some interesting ideas about class and gender as well as, for me, the most important message: the devastating effect of war on humanity. In matters relating to war, there seems to be this idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘goodie’ and ‘baddie’. This should not be the case and director Tricia Thorn’s production goes a long way to show there are no ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’ – suffering in war is universal.

Last up is J.M. Barrie’s The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, a touching story about elderly women competing over the bravery of their serving sons. Mrs Dowey (Susan Wooldridge) boasts about her son’s letters, however, when Private Dowey (Simon Darwen) returns it appears that not all is as it seems.

This is a very well-written piece, doused with humour and wonderfully acted by Darwen. It must be said that Darwen is brilliant throughout the whole evening, a real talent. Unfortunately Wooldridge is not as strong and with a questionable accent – Welsh? Scottish? Italian? – her bumbling mannerisms quickly lose their humorous effect. The ending, however predictable, is undeniably immensely poignant.

Whilst by no means perfect, What the Women Did is a poignant evening of theatre. These are fascinating and powerful plays, tinged with sadness, that offer a valuable insight into a woman’s experience of war.