Park Theatre presents the UK premiere of Melanie Marnich's
These Shining Lives
The Times * * * * The Guardian * * * * The Independent * * * * The Daily Mail * * * * What’s On Stage * * * *
"Shining ladies light up our newest stage." Daily Mail
"Charity Wakefield is transfixing in the lead role." Evening Standard
"A touching and sometimes lyrical piece." Daily Telegraph
"The performances given by the star-studded cast were truly moving." The London Magazine
Guardian, 16th May 2013 (Michael Billington)
Many years ago Keith Dewhurst wrote a Guardian column arguing that theatre had to move away from city centres to areas where people actually lived. In London the shift away from the West End gets a significant boost with the opening of this stunning £2.5m playhouse in Finsbury Park: a bustling northern suburb.
You could say that opening a new theatre in the current climate is the act of either a visionary or a madman. Jez Bond and David Hughes, respectively artistic director and architect of the Park, look to me like far-sighted pragmatists. They have kept costs down, built a 200-seat main house – plus a flexible 90-seat studio that resembles a baby Donmar – and, above all, created a space that is light and airy. The programme also looks like a shrewd blend of past and present, with Jessica Swale, our best young director of period comedy, staging The School for Scandal, followed by Maureen Lipman starring in a new play by Oliver Cotton. I just wish Arts Council England could cough up some dosh to give the venture the support it needs.
Bullish as I feel about the Park, the opening show is more notable for its political timeliness than its dramatic subtlety. It's by American Melanie Marnich and deals with an infamous case in 1920s Chicago when a group of female workers suffered radium poisoning from painting luminous watch dials. Eventually one of the terminally sick workers took the company to court, but Marnich's play focuses more on the cameraderie among the watch-painters, and the way the odds were stacked against them. As one of them sharply says: "The definition of a company doctor is a doctor who takes care of the company". But, at a time when rightwingers regularly mock health and safety regulations, the play offers a potent reminder of the need to protect workers from exploitation.
Marnich is a bit too much in awe of her heroine, Catherine Donohue, who, despite suffering bone cancer and necrosis of the jaw, takes on the company. Charity Wakefield avoids making Catherine too saintly by emphasising her frisky sexiness and initial reluctance to become a courtroom crusader. Honeysuckle Weeks as a deep-drinking, hard-living colleague and Alec Newman as Catherine's macho husband lend assured support, and Loveday Ingram's zippy production looks handsome in Tim Shortall's design, with its projections of Chicago's majestic skyscapes. It's not a play of great nuance, but it gets this new venture off to an appropriately shining start.
Times, 16th May 2013 (Libby Purves)
These Shining Lives at Park Theatre, N4
Here’s a welcome counterweight to all that Gatsby drooling over the Jazz Age. Far from Daisy’s dock, the industrial boom of 1920s America is the theme of Melanie Marnich’s play, rewritten for this British premiere. Catherine, 19 and the mother of twins, joins the factory girls at the Radium Dial Company of Chicago. “A girl walks differently when she’s making money!” she exults, bonding with her benchmates, led by the sassy, rangy, Charlotte (Honeysuckle Weeks of Foyle’s War fame). Her husband (Alec Newman) welds high girders as the city soars upwards, and reluctantly accepts her new loyalties: both married love and workmate affection warm the play’s heart.
Charity Wakefield’s Catherine tells the audience: “This is not a fairytale, though it starts like one. Nor a tragedy, though it ends like one.” Simple decency is hard to play, but Wakefield has a lovely mild natural sweetness. I almost said a luminous quality, but that would be hideous irony. For even in 1922, with scant understanding of radioactivity, nobody should have been sent to paint numbers on luminous watch faces, licking the brush and dipping it hundreds of times a day in radium powder. Over six years the girls develop symptoms, coming to a crisis when all four (assisted by Rob Casey’s nimble lighting plot) abruptly shine a horrid green. Catherine changes from healthy youngster to pale victim of bone cancer; the others slowly admit symptoms. A bitter line observes: “A company doctor is a doctor who takes care of the company.” He prescribes aspirin. The factory boss (David Calvitto) sacks them as they fade. Only one doctor in the town speaks the truth: it’s terminal radium poisoning.
This grim industrial tale reminds us of asbestosis, dioxins and now Rana Plaza. So does the women’s legal battle, defying the community and the media who back the big employer. They win, just in time to die. Yet the lyrical humanity of the writing, and Weeks and Wakefield’s performances, achieve a final grace. A fine start for Jez Bond’s bold new 200-seat producing theatre near Finsbury Park station. It could fly.