Amidst the dank, festering mist of a London gutting shed a source of warmth can be found: the laughter and chattering of the women who earn their keep preparing meat for the butcher’s counter. The ‘Gut Girls’, Maggie, Ellen, Polly, Kate and Annie, spend their lives at work, whether that is in the sheds or at the home, but when the opportunity of a brighter future occurs, in the form of Lady Helena’s ‘Club’, the group begins to fracture; who can accept the generosity of a superior and whose pride will prevent them from accepting her offer? In bringing Sarah Daniels’ The Gut Girls to the New Theatre Stage, Kathryn Feavers and her producer Wawa Hunja ask their audience whether it’s right to interfere when you know so little of your subject and their lives.
Dark and cold, the performance opened to the butchering of what appeared to be the entrails of the hanging carcass which ominously took centre stage throughout the performance. To the left of the gruesome centre piece hung a full bookshelf and a crucifix, to its right, a looking glass, petticoat and chandelier; signalling the girls’ ultimate choice between their current lives and an education leading into service. The steely flashes of the cleavers and the blood splattered aprons gave a sense of the merciless plot to come and the fearless nature of the girls around whom it revolves. Apart from the hanging objects, the stage remained a relatively blank canvas for Feavers’ lighting design which highlighted each of the hanging objects in turn, forecasting the content of the ensuing scene, a necessary addition considering the jumpy nature of the plot.
The friendship between The Gut Girls, and between the actresses themselves, was striking. The many one liners sparked off each other and these exchanges, in sustained cockney accents, filled the theatre with light and a sense of hope, in the otherwise bleak plot. The quiet, yet charming Kate, thoughtfully delivered by Nicola Fox, provided a sense of reality and together with Jim (Roger Smissen); the pair demonstrated the effect of poverty on young love and its aspirations. Contrastingly, Abby Robinson’s feisty, no nonsense Maggie provided, and often sustained, the energy of the group scenes.
The two extremes were grounded by Lauren Grant’s haunted Annie, whose looks often held a thousand words. Tegan Jolly’s facial expressions and witty delivery as Polly brought humour and gritty reality to the group whilst Emma McDonald’s Ellen appeared authorial and self assured throughout, a softer side being only occasionally revealed. Her show of vulnerability in the closing moments of the play left me unsettled and pensive as I applauded the cast moments later, but perhaps earlier shows of this weaker side would have enabled me to empathise more with her worthy cause. The interfering, or perhaps concerned, Lady Helena was ably performed by Ginny Lee, and her interactions with Carl Alexander’s Edwin highlighted the difference between their privileged lives and those of the girls. Coupled with the passive, yet kind hearted Priscilla (Eloise Hyde), James Pardon’s dominating Arthur added an extra dimension to the plot. The clever, multi- role casting of Lucy Dollman as both Lady Helena’s maid and mother to two of the girls provided a visual link between the classes. These upper class characters provided the context for the girls’ plight, however on many occasions the bursting energy of the five girls stole the stage from the refined discussions of their ‘superiors’.
The strength of this energy was especially apparent in the first half of the performance where the fluid nature of the script allowed for dialogue to flow and emotions to build. However, although the many tableau-like episodes of the second half were thought provoking, I felt the previous energy was somewhat lost as the spotlight flicked back and forth between different characters. This fragmented style did reflect the turmoil of the girls’ lives after their laying off from the shed, however, the raw emotion demonstrated during individual moments of reflection was often undermined by an immediate switch to another, more superficial, discussion.
Through their intervention into the lives of the five strong women, Lady Helena and her aids indeed created an evident distance between the ‘Gut Girls’, who ended the play broken and without the gritty hope with which they began. Although occasionally lost in a wash of smaller, less significant scenes, moments of hilarity and despair characterised this performance which brought heart, amidst some other organs, to the New Theatre stage.