Pros: A spirited production about a lesser-known chapter in women’s history.
Cons: I can see how actors playing multiple parts can show contrasts between different characters. However I found in some cases the double casting worked against dramatic tension.
As you take to your seats, old music hall tunes such as My Old Man Said Follow the Van play, and if there’s any doubt as to when and where this play is set, adorned from the rafters and various tables are replica carcasses, ready to be carved. Welcome to the docklands of Victorian Deptford.
The play begins with a new recruit joining a group of young women (some no older than teenagers) working at a slaughterhouse gutting shed. Like the meat they work with, the girls are ‘raw’ and devoid of the social graces that women in more fortunate circumstances can afford. The Victorian era had its fair share of philanthropists, and in The Gut Girls, this takes the shape of a real historical figure, Lady Helena, the Duchess of Albany (played by Gemma Paget).
But why would anyone want to work 13 hours a day, up to their elbows in entrails? New recruit Annie (played by Hannah Wood) certainly finds the work and conditions (as well as her colleagues’ brash manner) hard to get used to, but she soon realises, to quote John Milton’s Paradise Lost, that ‘the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’
Unlike other working class women at that time whose only options in life were marriage, ‘working’ the street or prison, these women were financially independent. In one sense, they had more freedom than women of the landed gentry, as they could go where they pleased, and behave however they saw fit. We learn in the play that this independence earned the ‘Gut Girls’ the enmity of men and women alike, as they were an aberration, a threat to the ‘natural’ order of things.
The men in the play, almost without exception, behave appallingly. That’s not to say that the author thinks all men behave this way. Rather, the men within the women’s social sphere in the play behave with varying degrees of ‘enlightenment’.
Of all the ‘Gut Girls’, Ellen (Beth Eyre) is the only one with enough awareness to realise the uniqueness of their situation and partakes in the meetings of the nascent trade unions of the time. The other girls, quite understandably, want to spend what little free time they have enjoying themselves, rather than going to meetings. However, their lack of foresight eventually proves costly. In any case, their reputation attracts the likes of Lady Helena, who wants to ‘save them’ from their ‘tarnished’ reputations.
Through her influence, the ‘Gut Girls’ are allowed to leave one hour earlier on Thursdays to attend her ladies ‘club’. The girls are reluctant to go but eventually they relent and attend her classes on sewing, Christian values and decorum. However, even during these meetings, in spite of the good intentions, the girls find the classes didactic, suggesting that the only way to live in the future is to work as a domestic servant. Certainly the ulterior motives of altruism are scrutinised here. I won’t mention what happens next, but as you may surmise, the road ahead is bumpy for all concerned.
If I had to make one observation (a subjective one at that) it’s the double casting sometimes took me out of the play and the dramatic tension was lost. However, the cast all gave spirited performances and certainly made the characters recognisably distinct from each other.
The play has a relatively simple plot, but the points it makes about empowerment for women through employment and self-reliance are unequivocal and well made. The female experience here takes centre-stage and is a stark reminder of how precious self-determination is for all.
Author: Sarah Daniels
Director: Amy Gunn
Producer: OutFox Productions
Booking Until: 29th March 2014
Box Office: 0844 8700 887
Booking Link: http://brockleyjackstudio.ticketsource.co.uk/events