Pros: A brilliantly constructed story of women fighting for recognition and acceptance in the First World War
Cons: Very few, although there was initially a strong smell in the auditorium which quickly passed; or were they simply recreating the trenches?!
The Arts Theatre Studio provided a compact setting for the play which explored the Corps quest for acceptance by the military. They provided invaluable help, driving ambulances, running hospitals and casualty clearing stations for the Belgian and French Armies. By the Armistice, they had been awarded numerous decorations for bravery, including 17 Military Medals, 1 Legion d’Honneur and 27 Croix de Guerre. This is where my ignorance kicks in; mystifyingly, the British Army wanted nothing to do with them and weren’t even recognised as a regular unit of the armed forces. Members of the Corps had to pay for their own uniform and laundry; they even had to rely on women from wealthy families donating ambulances to the cause.
The story centres on five women serving the Corps; Angel, smitten by a French Army Officer; Bruton, stiff upper lip commanding officer; Bobby, anxious to serve her country with a brother already in combat; Phyllis, well to do, avoiding a dull marriage and Emily, working class country girl with something to prove. We follow the girls’ enlistment, training and eventual transit to France. There is a smart transition when Bruton fights officialdom, the remaining cast members take on the role of General, Field Doctor and others, who patronise, berate and undermine the Corps efforts. There is a tremendous sense of injustice in what is, shockingly, a true story; women actually having to pay to serve their country.
The production is wonderfully judged, simple props (brass cages, trunks and a couple of stretchers) add to the stark reality of a brutal conflict. The cast are totally convincing throughout; Bips Mawson, willowy and attractive as Angel; Henri Merriam, stiff backed and correct as Bruton; Leila Sykes, nervous and tense as Bobby; Madeline Gould; defiantly independent as Phyllis and Stella Taylor as earthy Emily. The story arrives at a surprise conclusion and finishes as it started, a transcripted interview with Bobby (voiced by Anna Carteret) many years later recalling subsequent events.
The women of the Corps were true patriots, easily matching the heroism shown by their male counterparts; we should all salute them.
Author: Bips Mawson
Inspired by Novel by: Robert Radcliffe
Director: Anonymous Is a Woman Theatre Company
Producer: Susie Newbury
Box Office: 0207 836 8463
Booking link: https://artstheatrewestend.co.uk/whats-on/f.a.n.y-(first-aid-nursing-yeomanry)/
Booking until: 2 April 2016