Victorian South East London: the docks are alive and buzzing with traders, ships and livestock ready to be sent to the slaughter sheds. It was during this time that the 1869 Cattle Diseases Act was implented, stating that all livestock must be slaughtered upon their arrival to the dockyard, to prevent any diseases from the foreign livestock spreading across England. Due to this act, more than 500 women were employed to work in the slaughterhouses’ gutting sheds. They worked thirteen hour days in these stinking sheds, up to their elbows in organs and entrails. Often percieved as mouthy and unruly, the girls had a rare degree of independence for the time. They were called ‘the gut girls’, and are the heroines of Sarah Daniels’ fantastic play.
The play begins on the day that Annie joins four other girls in their shed for her first day. The characters are established very quickly in the dialogue that follows as they introduce themselves; Polly is funny, Maggie is strong and outspoken. Kate is the baby of the group but has the foulest mouth of them all and Ellen is the women’s rights enthusiast and, much to the confusion of the other girls, the only “lettuce eater” (vegetarianism wasn’t a term the Victorians were overly familiar with). Each of the characters is brought to life by the cast who remain committed throughout the play. Although the changes they undergo as Lady Helena begins her rehabilitation of their behaviour are drastic, their performances never waver.
The production is staged at The Space, a converted church on the Isle of Dogs used for various theatrical ventures. Director David England has made excellent use of this wonderful performance space, using every available entrance around the room and even, at one point, the lighting balcony. The play is full of movement and there are no static conversations. even in scenes where the girls are simply working with guts (very realistic but thankfully not smelly at all).
The two acts of the play could not have been more starkly contrasted against one another. The first sees the girls in all of their boisterous glory, bantering and drinking and whilst working hard under merciless conditions. Daniels’ script rings out with feminist humour and a discussion of the use of sausage skins to prevent impregnation was a particular high-point for the audience. Behind the bawdy laughs, however, lie serious depictions of the vast gender inequalities of Victorian England. In the first act, the girls give as good as they get but when they lose their jobs and are forced to train for service, the audience watch as the exquisite vivaciousness of the characters is squeezed right out of them and replaced with mop caps and bad tempers. Then comes an extremely grave consequence for one girls at the hands of the brutal master, chillingly portrayed by Louis J. Parker.
The devastation of the second half is intensified by Katharine Blackshaw’s wonderful performance as Lady Helena, an aristocratic woman who truly believes she is training the girls for the good of their lives and their souls. In reality, her training serves only to crush what little spirit society had allowed them to keep hold of. The final monologues, given in quick succession, convey utter defeat and submission. In the space of two hours, we witness five exciting characters transformed by society into drab and unhappy creatures whose most exciting prospect is to one day become head maid or a chief nanny in the service of their ‘superiors’. The Gut Girls is an accurate depiction of the subordination of women in Victorian England. However, given the numerous recent high-profile stories in the news concerning violence towards women and girls, I left the production thinking that perhaps The Gut Girls isn’t so far from our reality either. There was a lot to be learned from this near-flawless production, which was touching, thought-provoking but, above all, immensely entertaining.
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