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
1st March 2019
Chelmsford Theatre Workshop, The Old Court Theatre
Author: Tessa Davies
As we entered the Old Court Theatre, we were greeted and given a programme. We had to queue at the box office for our tickets but that was quickly dealt with. When we took our seats, it was nice to see that the house was virtually full. The ambient music that was playing helped to create the atmosphere, as did the cast who were already on stage having a soiree.
I have seen the show before so there was a lot that did not surprise me as much as the other people in the audience but, even knowing what was coming, I was laughing from the beginning. The cast were strong performers and they had developed their characters nicely.
Colin Smith played the lead role of Francis Henshall well, although his constant hand waving did become a little bit tiresome after a while. In my personal view, I think the character works better being understated but everyone will have their own opinion on that! His change to ’Paddy’ was interesting but the constant jigging also became distracting. Colin’s interaction with the audience was terrific, his work with the ‘sandwich lady’ was excellent to observe. He is clearly a talented actor, so I have to assume that a lot of what he did was directed.
Laura Bradley was very good as Pauline Clench, totally the dumb blonde but nicely played without going over the top. Helen Millwood played Dolly beautifully. The joy of this theatre is that the cast are close to the audience, giving them the opportunity to use facial expressions much more than in a large theatre. Both Helen and Laura had this perfectly, they conveyed so much more with just their facial expressions. Corinne Woodgate played Rachel Crabbe (playing her twin brother Roscoe for most of the play) This is a difficult part to play as the character must be believable as a male, albeit an effeminate one. For me Corinne nailed it beautifully.
Alan Edwards played Charlie ‘The Duck’ Clench with some good attention to detail in the character. Mark Sutton played Harry Dangle, the slick lawyer and the character was spot on. Alexander Bloom played his son Alan; his character was, for me, not over the top enough at the beginning, but he did get more so as the play moved on. James Christie played the ‘upper class twit’ Stanley Stubbers to perfection, a perfectly balanced performance. Jesse Powis played Lloyd Boateng, friend of the Clenches and the landlord of the pub. Dave Hawkes played the geriatric waiter Alf and, although he was thoroughly entertaining, I did feel that the character was a bit ‘overplayed’. Finally, a mention for Lewis Clarke who swept up all the other parts, well done!
A lot of the action seemed to be more pantomime than comedy, it is a fine line to tread between the two and I was not convinced that the Director achieved the right balance throughout the play. I thought that there could have been lot more done with the trunk, it was not on stage for long enough given the key part it plays in the plot.
In truth, though, the script is the star of this play, it just needs a strong hand to control the action. A farce it may be (in the theatrical sense) but it needs a firm directorial hand to keep it on the right side of farcical.
The scenery was excellent, well planned and beautifully decorated in the period. The costumes were good, again well placed in the period and the accompanying music matched the production. The technical aspects of the play, like lighting and sound effects, were well executed.
Having said all this, it was obvious that the audience thoroughly enjoyed the play and the comments as we exited proved that this was a well-received production.