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review of we happy few…

…by Imogen Stubbs and directed by Colleen Batson

Review by Peter Yolland

This play was originally performed in 2003 at Malvern Theatre and then opened in London in June 2004. The London premiere was directed by Stubbs’ husband Trevor Nunn.However, audiences were poor and reviews critical or lukewarm, and it closed at the end of July.

The title is taken from the patriotic invocation of Henry V, and Stubbs’ play revolves around a troupe of female players who travel the country during the Second World War bringing Shakespeare and theatre to the masses to raise public morale. Her Artemis Players are based on a real-life group, the Osiris repertory company, which, led by the resourceful Nancy Hewins, brought the Bard and other classics to the provinces with over 1,500 performances. The women took on the roles normally taken by men who were required to undertake war time roles.

The first half serves to bring the troupe together: their struggles for artistic credibility and first tentative productions. There is Hetty, the founder, and her friend and stage manager Flora; the Rosenbaums, a mother and son, Jewish refugees from Germany; Ivy, a dual-heritage maid from the Midlands; Charlie, the working-class girl, happier repairing cars; Helen, a fading star who drinks too much and has crushed the self-esteem of her aspiring actress daughter Rosalind; Joselyn, a socialite fundraiser drawn in to support the war effort. Supporting Hettie in her endeavours is her cousin Reggie.

The second half sees the troupe go on tour and provides the opportunity for the members to play out private revelations about their past, their hopes for the future and their prejudices. These scenes include the suicide of a gay relative, a child conceived by rape and the death, by a flying bomb, of a pregnant member of the troupe. Throughout the play there are quotes from Shakespeare that are relevant to the scene.

Rudi Roversi’s set, recalling a blank rehearsal room, was perfect to allow the audience feel they were witnessing the formation of the troupe in a period of uncertainty and when they went on their travels. The wooden hanging racks and props were carefully placed on set to allow movement and relevance. Likewise, the lighting designed by Jackson Gleeson and the sound effects by Simon Tyrell-Lewis drew us into the story. The inclusion of the projector screen reinforced the idea that men were responsible for war, with women left to manage the consequences.

The actors, many of whom were new to BLT, were like the troupe themselves drawn from all parts of London and the Home Counties and by concept were predominantly female, and it required a strong female lead. BLT returnee Deborah Hedges carried off the role of Hetty Oak superbly and I had a tear in my eye in that final scene. She portrayed the drive necessary to fulfil her character’s project, but then carefully emoted her past concerning her unwanted pregnancy and then later the tragic death of her son.

In respect of the newcomers to the BLT stage, Kim Robinson clearly portrayed the supportive Flora, and with powerful emotion told us of the impact of the loss of her brother on her life. Tara Burgess as Charlotte (Charlie) Peters was entirely believable in role as a new member of the ensemble and gave us clues to the future relationship with Rosalind Roberts played by Bridget Grace.

I could feel the sense of frustration between Rosalind and her mother Helen Irving, played by Aurea Williamson. Aurea seemed to play her male ‘wide-legged’ scenes with gusto. Sharan Raju convincingly played the Midlands girl Ivy Williams; the accident-prone ensemble member who, although of dual heritage, suffers racial abuse when her relationship with Joseph Rosenbaum is discovered. Her death from a doodlebug strike and the delivery of a baby echoed scenes from Macbeth mentioned during the play and allowed Gertrude Rosenbaum to resolve and come to terms with her prejudice. A small point, but I must assume the fatal injuries were caused by the blast and not the shrapnel from the bomb as there was a distinct lack of blood to be seen.

Karen Peters-Parker was able to carry off her main role as Gertude and then her roles convincingly. She and Khen Nirnfield, who played Joseph, allowed us to feel how nervous foreigners were when living in Britain at those times. As well as acting, Khen showed us he could dance and play the guitar – so multi-talented. I would have liked a little more volume from him as it can be difficult to understand English when it is being spoken badly with a foreign accent. Hana Rae Corvin, who played the socialite Jocelyn Tripp, made it look very easy to sing badly and to be a newcomer to the world of theatrics. Steve Pitt had several small scenes in different roles as well as his main role of Reggie Pitt, who supplied the Rolls Royce and supported Hetty and Flora with their war effort. I would have liked a bit more differentiation within these roles by way of costume, gait or accent. But his role in the context of the play was to support the efforts of the womenfolk, and this is what he did.

Director Colleen Batson took on a play that was criticised when it opened as being too long and trying to cram in too many plot lines while ticking ‘diversity’ boxes that are more relevant to the 2000s than the 1940s. Lasting nearly three hours, it might have seemed unduly long for an audience. However, under her direction, the actors performed their scenes with pace as scripted and I didn’t notice the play drag. The use of projector for certain scenes, including Disney’s Snow White, and the fourth wall being broken with the ensemble becoming the dwarfs varied the staging of the production.

Audience figures were down on previous BLT productions and it’s possible that people not knowing the play researched it and were put off by those negative criticism when it was first performed. But we happy few that did come to see it certainly had our money’s worth with a production that at times showed real emotion and with believable characters carrying out their lives in the times of great uncertainty.

All in all, a great war effort.