Fresh Glory Productions presents
A play by the Lion’s Part
Lillies on the Land
Based on the Real Lives of The Women’s Land Army
Directed by Sonia Ritter
Designed by Jane Linz Roberts
8 June – 17 July 2010
A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
This joyous celebration of Britain’s ‘forgotten army’ – The Women’s Land Army, young women, many drawn from towns and cities, and all walks of life, with no prior farming experience, who generously took part in the ‘dig for victory’ WWII scheme with all of the hardships that imposed, is based on the memories of some of real life Land Girls. Leaving home and families behind, these women gamely shovelled ‘the s***’ on farms across Britain, as one character states in a letter home, to gales of laughter from a group of elderly female audience members sitting front and centre who, also shared laughter of recognition at other ‘in’ jokes along the way. The four actresses in this warmly enacted show play many roles, both male and female, employing a number of regional accents and sliding up and down the social scale to great effect as they do so, inspiring laughter, tension and tears, so much so that the audience are buoyed up by their Land Girls to the point of actually feeling quite grateful for the selfless contribution of the many young women who dug for victory for their country during Britain’s darkest hours and nostalgic for their make do and mend time.
The Lion’s Part, long an upholder of great British traditions like the Green Man, wassailing, Father Christmas, Dick Whittington, May Games (with maypoles) and Harvest Festivals (October Plenty) which they’ve enacted in the streets of Bankside on a seasonal basis for many years, are the perfect company to present such a deserving topic, as they are all, well honed, obviously big hearted actors. Lillies on the Land was written by the troupe as a ‘sister’ piece to their production of Christopher Fry’s A Sleep of Prisoners, a play about men at war which they’d also performed on tour.
The Women’s Land Army, originating in the WWI era, got into full stride during WWII, with 250,000 young women serving between 1939 and 1950, when the army was disbanded. At its peak in 1943, the Land Army had 90,000 women in service and two out of every three meals served in Britain was served thanks to their invaluable efforts. Between September 1939 and March 1940 alone, 30,000 male agricultural workers enlisted and these selfless young women left familiar, at times, very comfortable lives and full time jobs in offices, shops, banks, hotels and the like in order to heed the call, not to arms, but to farms. Their minimum age was only seventeen, and for all of these women, most from London and northern industrial cities, many away from home for the first time, the harsh realities of life on the farm, with its long hours of manual labour, in strange places far away from everything they’d ever known, oft without conveniences like running hot water and toilets ‘with chains’ were a far cry from the promises of the glamorous recruitment poster advertising a healthy life in the country.
There was a real 1940’s buzz wafting through the air in the lobby of the Arts Theatre as strains of ‘Sentimental Journey’ could be heard above the pre-show din. Some of the older ladies awaiting the show sported lovingly preserved fashions from the day – felt hats with feathers atop soft ‘40’s hairstyles, mock fur pieces draped across the jackets of tweedy suits, pencil skirts below the knee, sensible brogues or vintage pumps on stockinged legs. A pair of young women, donned in their own versions of these classic ensembles looked on admiringly. As we went to our seats, another seasoned woman, in the Land Girl’s green and beige uniform strolled up and down the aisles in the theatre, conversing with an OAP gentleman in an old time Bobbie’s outfit. The stage had the bare minimum of props – a vague, countryside backdrop, indicating fences on endless fields, a reliable old wireless, a couple of wooden chairs, a length of rope and of course, the clustered burlap bags indicative of a country at war in the 1940’s. On either side of the stage, large wooden frameworks, suggestive of a barn, were enough to give the sometimes, deceptively cosy feeling of being down on the farm.
The show begins in 1965, with four distinctly different characters, in four different locales, all former Land Girls, simultaneously hearing the news of Churchill’s death and reacting to it, remembering their WWII days. Before we know it, we are whirled back to the time when the characters signed up for duty and later, received their uniform Land Girl gear: two white blouses, two woolly green jumpers, two pairs of beige overalls, jodhpurs, one mac, one hat, greatcoat, and that most coveted of items – a metal Women’s Land Army badge. Their reactions to the style and quality of their uniforms is varied and hilarious, with one ‘common’ girl feeling excited and proud at the thought of wearing it all and her more upper crust counterpart saying, in a horrified, nasal accent, ‘mother cried when she saw my boots.’ Long before these these likeable, very human characters have reached the end of their tenures on the land, we’re right in there with them as they finish one another’s collective question and answer – ‘Would you do it all again?’ to which a resounding group ‘yes’ was the response!
The production’s many anecdotal episodes are fast moving enough to challenge any actor, but well paced enough for the audience to be able to follow along and empathise at every turning. Rosalind Cressy, Sarah Finch, Dorothy Lawrence and Kali Peacock, as Vera, Poppy, Margie and Peggy respectively all give finely tuned, warmly comedic performances, well-nuanced enough to generate feelings of anxiety and/or endearment in their audience when and as needed. There is simply no way one actress could be held up above the others as all are wonderfully ‘alive’ in their roles and openly appreciated by a very enthusiastic audience as the play progresses. In addition to their canny ways with physical humour and comedic timing, each of the actresses has a fine singing voice too, enabling them to collectively sound as full and rich as a small choir. They intermittently sing classics like ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ and ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, but each timely song is sung incidentally rather than in the bursting into song manner of a musical. The WWII era was, after all, one of the most verbose in history in terms of group singing to keep the morale up. It’s a practice that’s often sorely missed these days, especially by those who remember it, either firsthand or, through family memories.
Among the show’s many highpoints is a scene in which Dorothy Lawrence, as Margie, demonstrates her confusion about how to milk a cow. It takes a lot of skill and focus to make something so commonplace as funny she does and enable us to feel for the character’s awkwardness at the same time. Yet Lawrence achieves this and more, and her fellow actresses do the same in equal measures when their moments in the spotlight occur. Happily, the way in which the show morphs from one scene to the next, always smoothly and creatively, enables the audience to reap the benefits of the actresses’ extensive ranges. For example, at one point, we get a real sense of four individual young women, in separate places, away from home for the first time in their lives, struggling to cope, and in another, the contrast of three young women enjoying themselves at a dance, while another sits alone in another locale, locked away until an inspector comes to free her from her confinement, blacklisting the farmer who’s been her jailer, and moving her on to greener pastures, where she enjoyed the company of other Land Girls in a hostel. Thankfully, the show doesn’t whitewash the problems these brave young women faced, going away to live and work on unknown farms, where farmers, previously strangers, sometimes took it into their heads to ‘bother’ or occasionally, even abuse their new female workers. The close proximity of groups of POW’s, many of them Italian or German and/or throngs of male farmhands in these often remote locales, wasn’t always helpful either. Such variances as these scenarios present, both good and bad are intermittently enacted throughout the performance.
Then there are the friendships, always firmer when formed in trying times, and the love interests – all those G.I.’s and Canadian pilots, offering countless scenarios for scenes filled with humour and humanity. In the true spirit of those times, nothing is wasted here and all of these scenes are both funny and touching in a coming of age kind of way. They also provide commentary during the 1965 flashback scenes about those who married fellows they’d met on farms or moved elsewhere with service men. Speaking of relationships, in the play, one Land Girl says of ‘Winnie’ that Churchill ‘jilted them.’ If you keep reading through this review, you’ll understand what she meant.
I once had the honour of knowing a former Land Girl who, in her dotage spoke of little else than her days on the farm, in the company of lots of other young women working together, for the war effort. ‘Those were the days,’ she’d always say, ‘I’d join the army again if I could.’ Spoken like a real trouper, especially considering that back in 1944, Ernest Bevin senselessly decided not to recognise the WLA as service in the armed forces and in 1950, when the army disbanded, the Land Girls were not only not offered any post war education or training but also, refused resettlement grants, and made to return their uniforms. To add further injustice, WLA members were not even invited to attend Remembrance Day services at the cenotaph by the British Government until the year 2000! After much campaigning, the surviving 20,000 members of the WLA were finally awarded commemorative medallions in 2008. In light of these long-term, widespread oversights, I think it’s high time we were all made aware of and appreciative of the WLA’s invaluable contribution. Your role in this process would be comparatively easy...
Join The Lion’s Part for their warm and wonderful WLA play Lillies on the Land at the Arts Theatre. You’ll be deeply cheered by the experience if you do.
Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7HB
Tues – Sat 7.30pm
Wed, Thurs & Sat 3.00pm
SIGNED PERFORMANCE: Tuesday 6th July at 7.30pm will be a sign language interpreted performance.
TICKETS: £35 / £22.50 / £15
Concessions, groups & schools rates available – please enquire at the box office.
Tickets can be booked
ONLINE: Click here to book now
BY PHONE: Call 0845 017 5584 0845 017 5584
IN PERSON: Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JB
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