Chelmsford Theatre Workshop’s latest production is well named. The Gut Girls by Sarah Daniels tells the story of a close-knit group of women workers in a slaughterhouse in Edwardian Deptford and their respective fates as social and economic change at the beginning of the twentieth century means they are faced with finding alternative employment. The title can also be said to be a nod to CTW’s fine tradition of staging productions featuring strong, inspiring women and providing its female members with the opportunity to express their creative skills both on and off stage.
Leanne Young has obviously put her heart and soul into her first full time directing role in order to bring to the stage the essence of life for Maggie, Polly, Annie, Kate and Ellen. The camaraderie of the group is evident from the start when they are up to their elbows in offal in the gutting shed and we are given a clear indication of their characters. The stand out performance of the group is probably from Rachel Curren who is perfectly cast as the campaigning social activist and vegetarian, Ellen, tireless in her thankless aim to bring better rights and working conditions to her happy-go-lucky colleagues. Bethany Diggins and Jordan Ashmore bring a girlish charm and appropriate naivety to the youthful Annie and Kate and Andrea Dalton shows great versatility when the clownish Polly is tested to the limit. Angie Budd displays pride, defiance and humility as Maggie but some of the most engaging scenes are those when we see all five together, united in convivial high spirits.
Bev Benham is suitably aloof as the well-meaning but misguided aristocrat Lady Helena whose aim is to prepare the girls for alternative employment in service when the introduction of modern working practices means they are no longer required by the Deptford Foreign Cattle Market. Contemporary themes of gender and class inequality as well as animal welfare are highlighted as it is made clear that while the intention was admirable, the process simply proceeded to erode the girls’ former spirit and individuality and transform them into meek, unquestioning servants of the upper classes.
The Gut Girls is obviously predominantly a showcase for female actors but there are some smaller but significant male performances too. In particular, Paul Macklin epitomises outward charm with a private sinister streak as Arthur. Hints of domestic violence and coercive control are evident in the way Rachel Curren, in a second role, sensitively plays his well-meaning wife, Priscilla. Peter Scales as Harry also gets a chance to demonstrate the double standards inherent in Edwardian values which also encourages the audience to question whether today’s standards are any more evolved.
Bathed in a period-evoking sepia light and with striking scene-setting backdrop, it is clear that much effort has gone into highlighting the serious social issues inherent in this piece and particularly signifying their relevance to the present day. However, it feels a little as if this emphasis is at the expense of the various expressions of comedy in the script, in the witty oneliners and actions of the girls. Many of these appear rushed and thrown away and as a result fell a little flat with the audience.
This is a minor point, though, as it is difficult to effectively balance light and shade. If the aim of the production was to leave the audience thinking about the state of society in the 1900s and today, it succeeded for me. Go Girls!
Michelle Jacobs, April 2019