Wrens

Thu 4th – Sun 28th August 2011

reviews

Annabel James

at 10:47 on 19th Aug 2011

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It’s impossible not to notice that this show attracts a certain audience: female, tidily dressed, and long past retirement age. As the play began, the rather grannylike atmosphere of cosyness continued in the set: a room of neatly-made beds and a coat stand with silk nighties hanging from it. Women in Navy uniform strode in and out, their hair primly tied up, one of them singing about wanting her husband to come back from the war. I began to expect a rather rose-tinted period piece with a good dash of sentimentality, but Tiny Teapot Theatre’s production of ‘Wrens’ proves to be much subtler than this. As the play continues, the apparent safety and freedom of these young women during WWII starts to crumble, and we are exposed to the sinister consequences of life in a society which still subordinates them.

The all-female cast from Leeds University effectively manipulate the nuances of character in Annie McGravie’s script. The Wrens argue with, tease and support one another by turns whilst remaining notably separate from the men whose lives dominate their discussion. The action never moves beyond the walls of their dormitory: a private space in which men are not allowed and within which the Wrens can assert their independence. ‘I really like working in Signals’, one of them remarks, and after the announcement that the War is over, another only half-jokingly asks - ‘Do you think peace will be as much fun?’

This question becomes doubly edged when one of the characters is raped and we realize how inhibited the Wrens’ lives really remain. Old prejudices about female relationships emerge from the arguments: it’s the woman’s fault, she can’t tell her husband or he’ll disown her, she should have controlled herself better. At the play’s ending, we are left uncertain as to whether a potentially fatal solution to the problem has been successful. The Wrens’ sense of their own security is illusory when confronted with the attitudes of their society.

The production overall is tightly managed, to the point that some scene changes appeared a little rushed. The cast enliven the dreary space of the dormitory with usually well-delivered speech: Rachel Ashwanden in particular successfully explored the moods of her character Gwyneth, who seems at once to mother the other Wrens and to rebuke them with her dry wit. At points the dialogue fell a little flat: the character of Doris could have used better vocal modulation and facial expression, which was a shame given that she had some of the best lines – ‘my life drains away waiting for the kettle to boil’.

By the time the ceasefire is announced and people outside the dormitory are celebrating, it has become clear that the space in which these women exist was never entirely free of outside threats, and nor will the Wrens’ unusual freedom necessarily help them when they return to their homes. As one character puts it, ‘the big war’s ending but the little wars keep on going’.

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Imogen O'Sullivan

at 10:23 on 20th Aug 2011

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Tiny Teapot Theatre’s wartime production opened onto a suitably tiny stage, one that powerfully reflected the sense of claustrophobia felt by the 7 women sharing each other’s lives, however, at times this tiny space seemed a little constricting for a cast too large for it, just as the performance time felt too short to fully explore the distinctive characters leaving some of them feeling underdeveloped, despite the obvious skills of some of the cast members.

The set and costumes were visually perfect for this period piece, creating a real sense of nostalgia no doubt shared by the large proportion of older members of the audience. The a cappella singing that opened the play was also a beautiful nod to the wartime setting, the vulnerability of Louise Wellby’s solo voice indicating the inner vulnerability of her character, Chelsea, a quality which was sadly not explored to its full potential due to her lack of stage time. This clever use of song helps create one of the most beautiful moments of the play when the women unite in harmony – the ‘one for all and all for one’ mantra exemplified through perfect direction by Alex Kavenagh.

The all-female cast work tremendously as an ensemble throughout, with perfectly timed overlapping speech and sensitively nuanced relationship changes, particularly between Lauren Burgess’ Dawn and Phoebe Sparrow’s Meg. Both actresses did a fantastic job of exploring the childlike nature of their characters, particularly in shared exchanges, highlighting the true age of these young women forced to grow up before their time. ‘Wrens are expected to be grown-up’, and the pressure of these expectations is felt particularly through the motherly Jenny (Jennie Eggleton), whose insistence to take on a parental role occasionally fails to ring true, but does serve to stress the discrepancy between the age of these Wrens and the responsibilities they have to shoulder.

Though all the cast were strong, Rachel Ashwanden’s Gwendolyn deserves a special mention for exceptional comic timing as well as precise attention to the dramatic development of her character, the no-nonsense matron of the girls one minute whilst still retaining the need for childlike comforts like her bedtime call ‘Goodnight Mrs Night’. Whilst a beautiful period piece, this remains powerful as an enduring tale of women together – their lives, loves and losses, but ultimately their friendship. It is a shame that so many fascinating character threads remain underdeveloped in an otherwise very strong script. Although the length and the pacing were ideal, there were perhaps too many characters to allow any the exploration they deserved, reducing the emotional impact of Dawn’s rape and consequent abortion. The ending in general felt disappointingly inconclusive for an audience but perhaps accurately reflective of the lives that will continue as these young women grow up, go home and, hopefully, as Dawn dreams, live happily ever after.

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