25th February 2017, matinee
Recently, I read Rodney Ackland’s Absolute Hell, rewritten and retitled in 1988 after its flop production in 1951 and rediscovered as a masterpiece, one which invites comparisons to Rattigan, Chekhov and O’Casey – it’s a stunning play. Set in a West End drinking club in the summer of 1945, the play was originally blasted as libellous on the British people, claiming to show the dregs of war as drunks and failures. But really, the play shows an un-airbrushed and kaleidoscopic portrayal of people scared of war and of loneliness. Stephen Lowe, in Touched, puts women’s struggles and experiences of WWII centre stage, daring to hope in the face of Britain’s uncertain future.
This is the 40th anniversary production of Lowe’s Touched and I have to admit I’m not sure if I’d heard of the play before this production was announced. One of the many new commissions that Richard Eyre programmed as Artistic Director of the Playhouse, this is apparently the first professional production to have authentic Nottingham voices at its core. This is mainly due to the casting of Nottingham’s Vicky McClure, Aisling Loftus and Chloe Harris as the three sisters at the heart of the play, set in the 100 days between VE day and VJ day at the end of World War II.
The start of the play sees Sandra (McClure), Joan (Loftus) and Betty (Harris) celebrating the end of the war in Europe and the beginning signs of summer whilst they are taking in the washing. But domestic duties aside, their war has been dominated by an intensified increase in working in factories to help with the war effort. We later see them working on an unsafe production line where Joan warns the foreman that “you should listen to us as once the election is over, we’ll have more power”. It’s one of many lines that are loaded with naïve optimism that equal pay rights are improving and that the suffering and sacrifice of the war will soon be over. Interestingly, the first scene is filled with references to nursery rhymes, Listen with Mother, and Bible stories. When Jimmy asks about how a story ends, Sandra replies ‘And they lived happily ever after, like all good stories should’. It’s a reminder that, in these 100 uncertain days of phoney peace, no one can guarantee the outcome of post-war Britain.
Lowe perfectly captures the so-called ‘still point of the turning world’ by evoking a sense of inertia from which the characters want to break free. They talk about the airless heat of the summer and wanting to open the windows, they talk of street parties but we don’t see any and food is still sparse. But above all, women are presented as grafters, both at home and work and a just as important part of the war effort as what was happening overseas. Although the play may focus on the marginalised stories and voices of WWII, there is also a pulsing sense of relevancy in Sandra’s anxiety over not taking the peace for granted. She reminds her mother that you don’t destroy things (in the war) to then forget about them. And in relaying the story of Noah’s Ark to her niece to explain that rainbows are signs that God won’t flood the earth again, Sandra is fixated with the idea that the sun may dry up the earth and all those on it.
Lowe’s writing, although rooted in Nottingham colloquialisms and vernacular, is poetic and still feels contemporary. McClure excels in the complex role of Sandra. Sat in a boiling hot bath getting drunk – having been persuaded by Joan to sit in a hot bath and be sick in order to lose the baby she got from a one night stand with an Italian Prisoner of War – we see how she is still in pain from losing her first child and that she feels anxious that the war has made her lose out from becoming a mother. In another poetic and visceral monologue, we hear how Sandra craved the touch of the POW, the ruffle of his clothes, the softness of his skin and thus the urge for something more.
Aisling Loftus perfectly conveys Joan’s ballsy and brash sense of defiance and a wanton to look ahead to the country’s future. Marching around the stage singing ‘Hitler’s only got one ball’ and telling Betty to move on from losing her partner overseas. It’s a brashness that has perhaps come out of necessity because of the hardship of war but we also see her caring side behind closed doors.
In the last scene, Jamie Vartan’s impressive period design takes us from the cramped confines of terrace housing to an expansive, airy hill where characters’ spirits are lifted. In a Beckettian last coup, bomb-like explosions befall the stage, the sky is drained of its bright warmth and the tree is stripped of its blossom whilst the family are still enjoying their breakfast picnic. It’s a striking last image which reminds us that whilst the dawn of a new world can be jubilant and offer a glimmer of hope, it also brings the worries of an unknown future.
Touched plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 4th March, 2017.
|Photo credit: Robert Day.|
Vicky McClure as Sandra, Aisling Loftus as Joan, Sarah Beck Mather as Bridie
and George Boden as Johnny.
and George Boden as Johnny.