Reviewer: Simon Topping
Margaret Powell (1907-1984) was in service in the Edwardian era; first as a kitchen maid and then as a cook, until she married out of the work (this was a time when women could only escape such bondage by marriage).
In her fifties, she went back to school and not only gained several qualifications but went on to write a selection of novels and the story about her early life, Below Stairs. This memoir became a bestseller, made her a frequent guest on chat shows in the seventies and eighties and became the basis for the hit BBC TV programme Upstairs, Downstairs and more recently an inspiration for the global phenomenon, Downton Abbey.
Maid of Strong Stuff, tells of Powell’s early life using puppetry, slides and charming folk song; in a short, but entertaining piece of handmade theatre.
Entering the venue what the gathering first see is the marvellous paper mache puppet of Powell sitting in a swivel chair; made by Pauline Buck and Raven Kaliana (also the puppeteers for the evening), it is a triumph of expressiveness and character.
The third member of the Luna theatre team, Charlotte Oliver, tells most the tale of Powell’s childhood to later life graduation, through verse and song. A fine folk singer and multi-instrumentalist she guides the audience through the ups and downs of Powell’s life capturing her mischievous and irreverent nature well.
Accompanying the haunting songs about the First World War and through an absorbing account of servitude is a display of shadow puppetry. The backgrounds are nicely drawn and reminiscent of a more colourful version of Michael Bond’s original TV series of Paddington Bear.
While the very small venue hampers the three performers somewhat, they creditably soldier on, in the same way Powell did, to bring off an enjoyable DIY storytelling experience.
The evening is steeped in a bygone era and is melancholy, thought-provoking and celebratory too. On one occasion it spurs on a singalong to Pack up Your Troubles, which is quite moving.
Honouring one women’s triumph over adversity, Maid of Strong Stuff is a good celebration of Powell’s story and spirit.
Reviewed on 29 May 2019 | Image: Contributed