THE past few months have brought the plight of women in the entertainment industry to public attention, from the undue influence exercised by powerful casting producers and directors to the lack of work for women “of a certain age.”
The Midlands-based Anonymous is a Woman theatre company, set up by actors Leila Sykes and Bips Mawson, intends to turn the tables, providing strong, interesting and challenging roles for women. The first show, Think of England, written by Madeline Gould, is a spectacular start.
Set in a village hall in 1943, two friends from Manchester are running tea parties to bring the local populations together with servicemen about to go to war.
The title – in its extended form “lie back and Think of England” – is first recorded in the diary of Lady Hillingdon in 1912, and has been used regularly to tell women how to deal with unwelcome sexual advances (maybe not the best post-Weinstein message !)
The two unlikely friends, Bett (Leila Sykes) and Vera (Madeline Gould) have persuaded the Ministry of Defence of the benefits of their scheme, but there is more to it than bunting and cream tea and a bit of a dance. Their plan is to ensure that the boys experience the best things in life before they head off to the uncertain future of bombing raids.
On the night we meet Bett and Vera, they are hosting a party with special guests from the neighbouring RAF station where Canadians are waiting for their plane to be repaired before heading off for the Wuppertal.
Two lieutenants, Bill (Matthew Biddulph) and Tom (Pip Brignall) are vying for supremacy. Bill’s in charge in the air, but the arrogant Tom, grieving for a recently killed crew mate, wants it all his own way. The newcomer on the crew is Frank (Stefan Schwarz), a timid country boy who is easy prey for the cruel Tom.
The format of the show is perfect for this Artsreach village hall performance, with the audience at tables being drawn into the action as the personal stories unfold. The celebratory mood changes with the interval, which is followed by shocks as the reality of war breaks through the jolly patriotism.
The five young actors perfectly capture the period and the hesitant bravado. This is so much more than a play with songs and scones, as the audience becomes more and more involved in the outcome. The script cleverly upsets expectations at the same time as retaining the tension behind the light banter.
Just one suggestion. The music needs to be a little louder, though this may be a difficulty with many different village halls and other venues. The show now goes to London before a tour in the north and midlands.
This is a company to watch.