Those of you with nothing better to do than follow two year’s worth of my nonsense will recall that I’ve been to TBTL before and loved both their cake and their studio staging of Rona Munro plays (Iron on that occasion). And, whilst I can’t comment on the continuing quality of their cake (though the ice cream was excellent), I’m happy to report that their studio staging of Rona Munro pays have certainly not decreased in quality in the past two years.
The Munro they’re reviving for 2018 is her breakthrough piece, Bold Girls. Set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Bold Girls tells the stories of some of the women - wives, mothers and daughters - left behind as their heroic/criminal men (delete as appropriate) are killed or sent to prison. Mercifully, this is not an issue play. Though it never shies away or sugar coats the reality of The Troubles, it’s also not really interested in them as a political phenomenon. Munro is far more interested in the way that they impacted on the ordinary lives of ordinary women. Not just in the way it left them widowed, fatherless and sonless but in far more mundane ways. How do you get to your night out when there’s a roadblock in the way? How do you keep a garden or a house when British soldiers and Irish militants keep running through it? How do you actually exist, in other words, when terror and violence is literally on your doorstep all the time?
At times, this is played for bleak, black laughs. The idea that the three women stand in a minute’s silence for the latest local victim, but none of them can remember his name and are more concerned by the fact they might fall off their heels. The outrage of the oldest character in the play that her flowers have been trampled despite the fact she’s the only one in the street who has any. The giggling joy with which petty humiliations of British soldiers are recounted. The terror and violence are normalised and even mundane. It’s perfectly possible to live with them. Right up until the point when it isn’t.
Bold Girls is about the different, equally ineffective, ways the women choose to try and reclaim their ives from this. Quiet, desperate stoicism, living all the small lies necessary to convince yourself it is actually ok (Marie). Defiance and small acts of rebellion, that change nothing and get you beaten up for your troubles (Nora). Try and escape it completely, in the arms of men who aren’t your jailed husband and through scrimping together every penny you can to try and buy a ferry ticket (Cassie). Worst of all, be a child of it so that your only possible response is to simply exist (Deirdre).
I think where this play is at its absolute best, though, is when it gets into the more complicated (and perhaps more universal) issues around gender. It’s a very conscious choice on Munro’s part to make this play just about the women left behind; though plenty of sons and brothers are mentioned in passing, none of them ever appear. Because part of the violence and terror that these women face comes from within their relationships with the men in their lives. Cheating husbands, violent husbands, drunk husbands, brothers who monopolise their mother’s love, fathers who dominate their daughter’s universes. Society is only prepared to see these women as part of the heroic/criminal men whose orbits they fall into: as one character sums it up, “I’ve no story”. Munro calls bullshit on this and it’s great. She dissects the relationship between women and men at the time and the toxic masculinity that The Troubles normalised whilst devoting more time to telling these women’s stories as they should be told: with them at the centre and their relationship with each other at the heart (there is yet more amazing stuff on mothers and daughters too, as seen so often in Munro’s work).
I love this play, in short. And I love Rona Munro even more than I already did after seeing it.
Theatre By The Lake have certainly done it justice too. Their dinky (80 seat, by my count) studio is a great space for a chamber piece like this. It’s intimate enough to get up close and personal; versatile enough to be able to do some interesting things with the staging. Bobby Brook directs with exactly the sort of focus and heart it needs. It’s an enormously clear telling of the story and a well paced show too (though the interval is entirely unnecessary and, one suspects, included only for the purposes of the theatre’s bar revenue - which is sort of fair enough in this venue). Louie Whitemore’s design makes great use of the space. The sound (especially the music) and the lighting are great. The set is clever - authentically feeling like both a front room and a social club, the transformation from one to the other particularly well done and a great use of sparkly gold tinselly stuff.
The cast of four are great too. One, Christine Entwisle, is somewhat miscast, playing Nora who is supposed to be a generation older than two of the other characters (and two generations older than the fourth) despite all the actresses being roughly the same age. It feels a bit Mrs Merton and takes away from the power the character could have, though Entwisle isn’t to blame here - she works as hard as everyone else but just has that much more to try and overcome. Lydea Perkins is great as the vulnerable, mysterious and dangerous Deirdre. She sells the mystery over her character’s identity perfectly (I didn’t guess it until the big reveal) as well as appearing vulnerable, sad and angry. Sarah Kempton’s Marie is endlessly sympathetic. Her anguish when she realises who Deirdre is - and who she shows Marie’s husband to have been - is powerfully raw and heartbreaking. Alice Imelda’s wayward and tragic Cassie is my pick though. So charismatic, so sassy, so complicated and so sad. She also gives us the best Irish accent of the four too, managing the tendency for it to wander better than the others do.
Bold Girls is yet another fantastic Rona Munro play - is there a fan club or do I have to start one? - in yet another fantastic production at Theatre By The Lake. As specialisms go, Rona Munro in tiny theatres in one I’m very much here for. And you just can’t argue with that front of house view...
Bold Girls is at Theatre By The Lake until 24th October, after which it will transfer, along with the rest of the TBTL summer season, to York Theatre Royal from 6-17 November.
My seat for this one was A4 and the ticket was generously provided by Theatre By The Lake.