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Music Theatre Review Haunting herstory of women on front line of WWI

Not Such Quiet Girls
Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

 

BLOODIED fur coats, faulty truck engines and flea-ridden mattresses in sodden khaki tents are the gritty physical context of this moving new opera about four young women ambulance drivers of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in WW1.

 

Underpinning the gruelling front-line working lives at the Somme of these “posh girls” are profound personal struggles about discovering love for other women and looking for ways to live untrammelled by ideas of what a lady should do — be sweet and marry appropriately.

 

Mary (Tara Divina) moves from being a conventional, naive and convincingly irritating debutante to a poet who’ll live away from home. Deciding to finally renounce the corset that impedes her work, losing her fiancee and traumatically finding her colleague Pat (Gillene Butterfield) suddenly blown to nothing by a shell, all propel her towards cataclysmic fresh understandings.

 

The key but restrained feature of the production is the torn lovers’ struggle. “Tony” (Cora Kirk) battles to reconcile family, duty and convention with her shattering passion for the “sporting” — once a euphemism for butch lesbian — “Harry” (Laura Prior). Both roles are played with heart-wrenching nuance — in the words of one of the songs, “You made me love you, I didn’t wanna to do it,” indeed.

 

Women’s voices have been strikingly absent from front-line life and its subsequent recorded history, but this new all-women show by writer and singer Jessica Walker puts the soprano aspects back into the historically over-masculinised melee.

 

All shapes and ages, the female chorus of Opera North in boots, pinnies and greatcoats weave around the duckboard mini stages, underlining how much previous theatrical representations of war have omitted complex femininity.

 

Joseph Atkins's new arrangement of traditional songs, especially the poignant I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier, provide a new vista on the war through women’s eyes. Equally, cheeky Vesta Tilley and Marie Lloyd numbers propel questions about wartime heteronormativity high up the agenda, though the final contemporary scene unfortunately makes too heavy-handed a connection with the difficulties women face today.

 

And, while authenticity requires a bit more muck, motor revving and groans of physical agony, designer Polly Sullivan’s impeccably tailored skirts and odd trousers, swansdown top-knots and redundant laced stays, are exemplary. She gets my prize for best floor and ceiling of the year, too.

 

If director Jacqui Honess-Martin’s production gets the further outing it merits, then Not Such Quiet Girls will be as seminal to gender-aware wartime historiography as Oh, What a Lovely War! has been to its anti-war counterpart.

 

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