Tuesday 8 September 2015

Theatre Review: When We Were Women (Orange Tree)

Abigail Lawrie and Mark Edel-Hunt in When We Were Women (Photo: Ben Broomfield) 

The 2015/2016 Orange Tree season opens with a small but well formed gem: a play of great beauty and subtle power, presented with exceptional delicacy and care. Sharman Macdonald’s When We Were Women premiered at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe back in 1988, but hasn’t had a major production since. Eleanor Rhode’s revival for the OT not only makes a compelling case for this particular text but also leaves you longing to see more of Macdonald’s work on the London stage. (The playwright’s best known plays these days are When I Was A Girl I Used to Scream and Shout and The Winter Guest, filmed by Alan Rickman, with Emma Thompson and Phyllida Law, in 1997.)

When We Were Women unfolds in 1940s Glasgow where Isla - a teenage girl living with her parents, Maggie and Alec, and with two older brothers fighting in the war - meets Mackenzie, a naval officer with a rather mysterious past. The play interweaves two time-lines, separated by a year or so, as it examines the fallout of that encounter and its impact upon the couple, and on Isla’s family. 

With its echoes of several other Scottish plays – notably Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep (1947) and Stewart Conn’s I Didn’t Always Live Here (1973) – the latter memorably revived at the Finborough by Lisa Blair in 2013 [review] – Macdonald’s play finds fresh, idiosyncratic life in a scenario familiar from many a folk ballad: a girl’s seduction by a sailor. On the surface, the play looks like straightforward social realism, but it has its stranger, ghostlier side, and Rhode’s production attends to both elements brilliantly. Macdonald’s dialogue is rooted in the poetry of Glasgow dialect speech but in ways that don’t feel affected or ostentatious, and the play features some striking semi-soliloquies throughout.  

There’s subtle expressionism to this production’s aesthetic, evident in James Turner’s spare set (a kitchen table set upon a wonky, cracked granite floor), David Gregory’s sound design and, especially, Mike Robertson’s outstanding lighting, which picks out the protagonists in surprising shafts of illumination. (This is, without doubt, one of the best, most inventively lighted shows I’ve ever seen at the Orange Tree.) The attention to ambience – which becomes, at times, rather noir-ish – generates surprising intensity, and allows the production to take on the contours of a reminiscence, a misty memory, while at the same time keeping the characters vivid and present, even when their interactions feel tantalisingly ambiguous.

Lorraine Pilkington and Abigail Lawrie in When We Were Women (Photo: Ben Broomfield)

As in much of Macdonald’s work, mother/daughter dynamics are central to When We Were Women, and the scenes between Isla (Abigail Lawrie) and her mother Maggie (Lorraine Pilkington) are particularly strong in their bracing combination of tension and tenderness. Once something of a libertine herself (“mah wild Maggie”, as Alec fondly reminisces), Maggie has, due to circumstance and compromise, gradually settled into an altogether different role. The contradictory messages she sends to her daughter (insisting that a woman must “cleave to her man”  but also “keep things from them, keep a bit of yourself private”) feel exactly judged. It helps that Lawrie and Pilkington are a striking physical match-up, and that the performances of both actresses are exemplary, with Lawrie making a terrific stage debut here following her acclaimed work in the BBC adaptation of The Casual Vacancy.

Steve Nicholson combines bluffness, bullying and beneficence as the hard-drinking patriarch; a late sequence in which he and Maggie outline to Isla their decision about a pivotal matter - the same decision, reached for different reasons - is perfectly played. The cast is completed by Mark Edel-Hunt as the troubled Mackenzie and by Sarah-Jayne Butler as Cath, a significant figure from his past. Both actors have strong, memorable moments. 

There’s nothing remotely modish about When We Were Women and the play’s refusal to milk its premise for more obvious melodrama may disappoint some. But those who do respond to Rhode’s production will find that this very tender, dolorous drama casts a haunting spell.

Booking until 3rd October. Further information at the Orange Tree website

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