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The W.I. Blues

by on 26 October 2017

Abigail’s Party goes to Ambridge

The W.I. Blues

by John Peel

SMDG at Hampton Hill Theatre until 28th October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

The WI is not to be messed with.  It is they, let us not forget, who slow hand-clapped Prime Minister Tony Blair for impolitely hijacking their Wembley conference with a political speech in 2000.  It is they too, who raised huge amounts of money for leukaemia research with a ground-breaking, naked calendar (since copied by almost every workplace and group to be found anywhere) and gave us a new national catchphrase on the subject of buns.  But in the case of WI Blues, the WI is in fact a simple plot device to bring a group of women together in a room for an evening, so we need not live in fear.

This group of five women duly gather in the living room of Grace who has just waved her husband off for the evening.  First to arrive is Fiona, a simple and rather downtrodden farmer’s wife bearing homemade coleslaw.  Fiona is patronised and abused by Grace (nicely played by Norma Beresford) who is equipped with gold standard qualifications in snobbery.  Three other characters arrive: Gina Way as Jane, the good natured vamp; Bobbie Ennals as Pippa, a woman who appears for most of the proceedings to be an ordinary wife and mother, and Hazel who owns the local deli and is struggling with an illness which may turn out to be serious.  These characters then interact with each other, largely on the subject of the men in their lives, but also giving vent to their frustrations and the ups and downs of daily life.  Their reason for being there is to help Grace with a speech she’s going to make in the hope of being elected head of the local WI.

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St Mary’s Drama Group is evidently blessed with a group of skilled actors, everyone in this piece was doing their best with rather weak material.  Norma Beresford as Grace would deserve credit for the vast amount of lines she had to deliver but in addition to this she gave life to a caricature role that drew a lot of laughs from a receptive audience.  Gina Way and Sue McMillan similarly gave it their all and got any comedy that was to be had from what they were given.  I was startled to learn towards the end of the play, that the character Pippa was the child of a peer of the realm, as the children of the aristocracy generally carry themselves with more languid superiority than the rest of us but this character seemed a little underwritten anyway and also might have benefited from more directorial input.

Stand out performance of the evening was Jean Keay as Fiona. Ms Keay clearly bagged the best role and played it to great effect.  She was very funny, timed her responses beautifully and overdid nothing despite a rather bizarre section in which her character got halfway drunk and forced everyone else to play pass the parcel, you need some degree of skill as an actor to carry that off – and trust me, when women get drunk together, we don’t play pass the parcel!

My issues with WI Blues are in the writing, not SMDG’s performance of it.  As a play, WI Blues has certainly got potential but probably needs a rewrite.  Its writer is male and it’s very much a man’s idea of “what we girls get up to” when they’re not around.

It’s a comedy, but it helps to get the detail right.  The action is set in the present day but the writer asks us to believe that Grace, a woman who has devoted her suburban life to the pursuit of all things snobbish, would pronounce the “J” in Rioja.  Beverley in Abigail’s Party famously rushes to put a gift of red wine in the fridge generating a huge laugh from the audience but Abigail’s Party was set 40 years ago when if you were British and had a bottle of any sort of wine in the kitchen you were either an exceptionally good cook or an alcoholic. I suspect today’s Graces of suburbia probably know how to pronounce Rioja.  Similarly, it’s highly unlikely that a woman in exclusively female company would talk in terms of the operation/treatment she’s just had on her “whatnot”, she’d have no need to disguise it, she’d call it by its name.  A man, on the other hand, talking about his wife/partner’s operation is more likely to use a euphemism.  Only details but they raise the quality of the material and make it more believable and you need credibility for good comedy.

That said, who really cares?  The opening night audience at Hampton Hill – which included a group of real WI members – laughed along with it and clearly enjoyed themselves.  I commend SMDG for its efforts with this piece but would respectfully suggest they take on some stronger material next time.

Eleanor Lewis

October 2017

Photographs by Archie McMillan

From → Drama, Reviews

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