THEATRE LIFE REVIEW: Lilies on the Land

Guest Reviewer: Michelle Jacobs
In the 80th anniversary year of the beginning of the Second World War and the 75th commemoration of D-Day, what could be more fitting for CTW to bring to the stage but a tribute to the work of the Women’s Land Army (WLA) or Land Girls?
Based on anecdotes from over one hundred real women’s experiences, Lilies on the Land by the Lions part uses narrative to tell the tales of  four different but typical Land Girls and how they learnt to cope out of their comfort zone.  It is never an easy task to bring narrative to life on the stage, particularly with a simple set and a small cast.  However, here the directorial team of Mark Preston and Martin Robinson have obviously worked hard to enable the audience to visualise the scenarios via effective use of mime, choreography, expressive dialogue and non-verbal cues.
Solid performances from all four lead cast members help considerably here too.
Rachel Curren is particularly effective in invoking the character of upper-class Poppy, so obviously unused to getting her hands dirty with menial tasks.  CTW newcomer, Suzy White appears equally at home as educated and resourceful career girl, Vera and also sensitively conveys perhaps the most poignant moment in the whole production.  Jacquie Newman is convincing enough as eager Peggy that one or two first night line stumbles are remarkably unobtrusive.  Her sense of achievement at successfully delivering a calf  is palpable and touching as is her growing affection for farmer Jim.  Jane Fielding seems most at ease  when portraying the lighter side of Margie’s story, receiving one of the biggest laughs of the night for taking a cow to be ‘covered’ in full view of local lads.
Much credit has to go to Fern McLean and Iain Holding Sutton  for displaying great versatility in their depiction of numerous and diverse roles which although small were theatrically vital.  McLean is a particularly powerful presence in the sequence where Vera discovers the fate of her friend Angie.  Holding Sutton, on the other hand, ably conveys the essence of an American GI, a creepy farmhand or a belligerent, bullying farmer complete with passable Scouse accent!
The inclusion of contemporary songs to mark the progress of the interweaving stories allow the cast to show their ability to sing in harmony although on occasion, they make the production feel a little disjointed.  An Anglo-German rendition of ‘Silent Night/Stille Nacht’ is particularly haunting and acts as a timely reminder of the futility of war.  The valedictory Land Army song, ‘Back to the Land’ is also suitably stirring.
Lighting comes into its own to transform the theatre into a dance hall as well as to cleverly denote fireworks on V.E. Day.  Sound effects were well thought out too, although once or twice the timing could have been tighter.
A lot of attention to detail has gone into making this a historically accurate account, down to the authentic green jumpers, dungarees and thick knee socks that made up the  WLA uniform.  The overall impression paints a picture that former Land Girls and their families would undoubtedly recognise and later generations may well find charming and perhaps even gently inspiring.

REVIEW: Sexual Perversity in Chicago

Sexual Perversity in Chicago – an appreciation.

Like the poster artwork, the design for this welcome revival is stylish and striking. Teal walls and furniture set off the terracotta trouser suits and other shades of red for the costumes.

This David Mamet classic takes us back to the sexually liberated seventies. In three dozen short scenes, he lets us eavesdrop on Danny and Deborah’s fragile affair, and explores the influence on them of their respective worldly friends, Bernie and Joan.

John Mabey, who directs, explains that his decision to cast all-female has less to do with the current enthusiasm for gender-switching than with the quality of the women who auditioned. But it does of course shine new light on the sexual politics, the mores and the misogyny of the times. There is a layer of interpretation, of judgement occasionally, between the characters and the audience.

The four actors all give fine performances, bringing out the angst, the frustrations and the contrasting attitudes of the two pairs.

We begin and end with Bernie and Danny, co-workers in an unremarkable downtown office. Bernie is what was called back then an MCP – male chauvinist pig – coarse, homophobic, but deeply insecure. Kelly McGibney captures him mercilessly – the man-spreading, the profanity, the egoism. Danny, though, is incredulous but curious, naive and impressionable, beautifully suggested in Heather Nye’s sympathetic performance. The set-pieces which bookend the 90 minute sequence are both very well managed – the steamy story of the flak suit and the jerry can – “nobody does it normally any more” – and the comically pathetic beach-babe-watching, with Danny now every bit as mindlessly sexist as his amoral mentor.

Meg Rowsell is Deborah, the commercial artist won over by Danny’s gauche wooing. A very believable character, perhaps the most realistic of the four.

Evie Lewis makes a wonderful Joan, friend and confidante to the younger girl. World-weary, sitting at the vanity unit, telling her fairy-tale fuelled by malt whisky and Marlboros, chastising kids in her class, rejecting Bernie’s unsubtle advances [and managing, with the tiniest of reactions, to draw our attention from his loudmouth chat].

Some of the best moments come when the emoting and the projecting is leavened with quieter, revelatory delivery. But there are countless memorable interactions: Bernie’s jealousy leading him to boast of exploits in Korea, his monologue on the efficacy of prayer, the awkward bedroom scenes, the blue movie, the salad.

The frequent black-outs lengthen the evening, but do give us a chance to relish some very apposite tunes of the times. The décor is bright and bold, though perhaps not quite grubby enough for the mood of the piece.

Mamet was 25 when he wrote Sexual Perversity in Chicago. This accomplished revival will, I hope, have introduced another generation to the early work of this seminal dramatist. The “language” may not be so shocking now, but the mutual incomprehension of the sexes is surely as timely as ever.

Michael Gray