DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Barnbow Canaries – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer: Alice Nutter

Music: Dyfan Jones

Director: Kate Wasserberg

Choreographer: Lucy Hind

Reviewer: Janet Jepson

Every town has a war memorial to its fallen soldiers, a constant reminder of men who made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for a better world. But sadly this is only half of the story, what of all those brave women who toiled behind the scenes for the war effort? During the two world wars women were willing and proud, to step forward and do tasks that were traditionally men’s jobs, working in factories, on farms, doing dispatch, driving ambulances and anything else they could do to ‘help their brave lads at the front’. Most of the work was hard, dirty and heavy, unlike the domestic service and shop work that women were used to, and in the munitions factories, it was downright dangerous. It is a tribute to women and girls who risked their lives every day assembling shells in these factories that Alice Nutter wrote Barnbow Canaries.

Barnbow munitions factory in Leeds was built in 1915 to satisfy some of the constant demand from the front in France for more and more shells. Local women were lured and bribed into working there by the high wages offered – they knew it was danger money and the risks to their health were high, but they were willing to overlook that for a new life of independence with cash in their pockets.

Sisters Agnes and Edith were two such girls; grafting with true Yorkshire grit, ignoring the cough, constipation and the colour of their skin wrought by long shifts in a gloomy atmosphere of TNT and detonators. Colette O’Rourke and Tilly Steele as Agnes and Edith respectively perfectly capture the varying characters of the girls who signed up for the hellish work, with a rose-tinted view of a future where women were free and might even have a role in politics.

Swifty, played by Jade Ogugua, just wants to have a good time while she saves for her bottom drawer and awaits her sweetheart’s return from the front. Florence, aka Jo Mousley, aims to do her bit to provide the best chance for the boys over there, especially since her beloved son Victor (Peter McGovern) refuses to stay in his protected employment as a Barnbow engineer, and eagerly awaits his call-up. Sparrow (Kirstin Atherton) is the supervisor with stern authority but with a heart underneath that we suspect has been almost broken. She supports the girls under her care as much as she can, which is more than can be said for the grumpy manager Parkin (Dominic Gately) who merely tolerates the women until the men return from war. Joseph Tweedale as Bertie plays the role of the average soldier in France, writing to his sisters Edith and Agnes back home, revealing how he’s made a will (just because the army ‘doesn’t like loose ends, you understand’) but hiding his fear behind jollity and descriptions of beautiful Gallic countryside.

In true Barnbow style, the rest of the cast is made up of locally recruited women from all walks of life in the Leeds area, their apparent friendship and solidarity could earn them the title of honorary Canaries. The catastrophic accident on 5 December 1916 literally blew lives apart, and it is an acknowledgement of the sacrifice that these local girls made which the author seeks.

The set is brilliantly devised, overhead pipes and high factory windows frame wooden benches and trolleys full of shells; while the girls move around in their grey canvas overalls, every hair tucked into voluminous caps to prevent entanglement in the machines. A splash of colour in the form of Agnes’ and Swifty’s new frocks for a dance serve to remind us of the hope for a bright future that endurance of this factory work brought to the girls.

Barnbow Canaries is a poignant performance that tugs on the emotions and raises so many issues surrounding women’s limited lives and dreams in the past. When manager Parkin likens the Munitionettes to canaries, not just because of their skin colour, but because of their expendability in the mines it hits home just how little they were valued. There’s upbeat music in the form of the Barnbow Girls’ marching song to remind us of the true spirit of these lasses, but the solemn hymn as a coffin is borne away just signifies the tragedy of it all. These women gave their all for the war effort, but few have ever said thank you or “we will remember them”. There is a feeling that some of the injustice is alleviated as yellow petals rain down, a sole trumpeter plays the last post, and a yellow balloon is released for each of the 35 fallen on that terrible day. No one could fail to be moved and feel furious at just how little recognition they got at the time when the whole incident was ‘hushed up’. Someone has to tell their story.

Runs until Saturday 9 July 2016 | Image: Anthony Robling

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