DramaMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Not Such Quiet Girls – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds

Writer: Jessica Walker

Musical Director: Joseph Atkins

Director: Jacqui Honess-Martin

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Opera North’s commemoration of the end of the Great War peaks with two premieres in two nights: the world premiere of Not Such Quiet Girls and the UK premiere of Silent Night. For these, the Chorus is divided by gender and in Not Such Quiet Girls, a co-production with Leeds Playhouse, the female chorus is deployed with great skill musically by Joseph Atkins and visually and dramatically by Jacqui Honess-Martin. Unfortunately, though the Chorus’ part makes an impact for all the right reasons, the show overall sometimes misses its targets.

Nothing wrong with Jessica Walker’s concept – on the contrary, taking the subject of the young women (ladies, many of them would admit to being) who drove ambulances behind the front lines at Ypres and the Somme is an inspired idea. Basing her text on a number of memoirs, novels and poems, Walker pursues several arresting themes. She draws on a wonderfully evocative photograph of five FANYs (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) in their fur coats which not only shows the desperately cold conditions they endured, but also the privileged backgrounds many came from. Then she also considers how the war provided an escape to independence for young ladies who were expected to marry well, have beautiful children and open a bazaar or two – and this independence could stretch to the sexual freedom to embrace a same-sex relationship. Then finally there is the question of how far this independence and freedom could extend into civilian life.

This is all meaty stuff, but the three main characters are too obviously created to embody a particular role or issue. Harry (Laura Prior) loves Tony (Cora Kirk) who loves Harry, but not quite as much – and not into the world outside. Mary (Tara Divina) joins the unit, impossibly naïve, stridently upper-class and appalled by the latrines, and constantly asks questions about boyfriends and wonders why Harry is different from other girls. It’s a bit obvious –and makes it all sound rather girls’ schooly. Gillene Butterfield, as the practical straight-talking Pat, has the most convincing of the parts, as well as the chance to shine vocally, in everything from art song to music hall.

However, the music and the staging more than compensate for the formulaic, even irritating, main characters. Walker and Atkins have been boldly successful in throwing together an unlikely mélange of musical material, much of it drawing on the music hall, but also including some beautiful short pieces by Rebecca Clarke, a neglected composer and viola player whose unpredictable life ended in New York City in 1979 at the age of 93! The settings for Atkins’ piano and three doubling musicians work very well.

In Polly Sullivan’s designs, the Howard Assembly Room is transformed, the action extending all down its length, with a surface that represents the mud of Flanders, occasional raised duckboards and a tangled mess above: greenery, lamps, broken furniture. Honess-Martin and choreographer Natasha Harrison deploy the chorus, in assorted Great War garb, throughout this length, dancing, marching, “selling” songs, button-holing the audience, all with great energy and attack. Miranda Bevin and Claire Pascoe sell the songs best of all as well as doing a neat caricature of snobbily old-fashioned parents.

Runs until 1st December 2018 | Image: Justin Slee

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