review of female transport

by Patrick Neylan

Like the 19th Century prison ship bound for Australia where it’s set, Steve Gooch’s Female Transport creaks and leaks a little with age. Written in 1974, it now suffers by comparison with Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good, written a decade and a half later and covering much the same themes only with more depth.

But ‘by comparison’ is the crucial phrase here. Female Transport is by no means a bad play and the audiences enjoyed the unusual setting and character interactions.

The first impression in BLT’s production is of Tony Jenner’s brilliant set, presented on two levels and reminding us old hands of his wonderful set for My Boy Jack. The main part of the stage consists of the below-deck cells where the women are confined. At the back of the stage and on a much higher level, the officers and crew go about their business, aloof from the sufferings below. Emma Christmas managed to light the whole extended set evenly, with subtle changes during the voyage to denote different latitudes and times of day.

But you can’t spend two hours admiring a set (sorry Tony), and the audience soon gets wrapped up in the developing relationships between prisoners and crew.

The play opens with a cargo of bickering prisoners preparing to sail and getting used to the fact that they’re going to be stuck with each other for several months before being deposited in a barely explored country. Pecking orders are established, as Winnie (Heather Wain) adopts the role of Mother Superior, Sarah (debutant Victoria Kenway) becomes the siren and Nance (Holly Wilson) positions herself as the bolshie trouble-maker.

Lumped in with these three are Charlotte (Megan McGery) as Nance’s rival; shy, pathetic Pitty (another newcomer, Rebecca Riddleston) and Madge (Yasmine Angeni, also new to the BLT stage). Madge quickly establishes herself as Pitty’s protector and possibly abuser.

On-deck we see the parallel problems of the crew: ship’s master Peter Yolland struggles to equip his vessel within the budget he’s been given and spends his time torn between the principled doctor played by Rob Widdecombe and Drew McGurren’s sadistic sergeant, in a vivid contrast with his be-cardiganed debut as mummy’s boy Graham in Talking Heads. The complement is made up by naïve, 16-year old Tommy (Ieuan Harrild), who has the thankless task of dealing directly with the prisoners every day and is soon sucked into their world.

With every scene separated by period music, I was reminded of Gary Larson’s two-frame Far Side cartoon: “Welcome to Heaven; here is your harp … Welcome to Hell; here is your accordion.” Fair enough. We are, after all, in a floating hell.

BLT’s production took maximum advantage of the bawdy humour in the first act, but couldn’t quite overcome some of the script’s shortcomings. While the women were gloriously tearing each other to bits under-deck, on deck Peter and Rob seemed hesitant in their opening exchanges as they struggled to contend with some low-energy, stilted dialogue as the playwright tried to shoehorn his social and political lectures into the play.

Gooch’s credentials to pontificate on early 19th Century society were called into question by the script’s constant references to ‘peelers’, even though Robert Peel didn’t set up the country’s first police force till two decades after the play was set.

The play’s best moments came when we saw the alternating camaraderie and rivalry of the women, with each actress deftly adopting the role fate had assigned to her character. Holly’s boisterous defiance was best summed by “Either flog me or piss off!”, and her confrontational attitude was nicely offset by Megan’s more insidious efforts to undermine her.

Victoria did a fine job of portraying the other route to survival. I used the word ‘siren’ earlier rather than ‘slut’ because Sarah is – as much as it’s possible in her situation – in control of her sexuality and uses it to further her aim of getting better conditions. Given that she genuinely seems to enjoy sex with Tommy, she exploits at least as much as she is exploited.

Yasmine was at times weighed down by a Scottish accent that slowed her delivery and seemed out of step with the rest of the cast, although it aligned her more with Pitty and a disturbing relationship that could have been exploited more. Rebecca’s pitiful Pitty, who never came to terms with her situation, was one of the harder characters to play, was never quite the tragic character she should have been, but I saw little in the script that would have enabled actress or director to exploit it more.

You know Pitty can’t last. Her hanging scene was both horrifying and yet strangely banal, and I was happy with both reactions, given the cheapness of human life in that era. The women carried on while waiting for the corpse to be removed, with nobody asking when the counsellor might visit. Credit must go to cast, director and playwright here.

I missed Holly’s character Nance in the second half: having been strapped inside a barrel – a punishment that first seemed comical but left her unable to sit or lie down – she was subdued and so a lot of the energy she brought to the first half was absent.

In the end, Female Transport was a fascinating show worthy of the main stage, bringing out some excellent performances that will be remembered for a long time by those who saw them.