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The Matchgirls

by on 30 November 2017

Giving Voice to the Girls

The Matchgirls

by Bill Owen and Tony Russell

Barnes Community Players, Kitson Hall, Barnes until 2nd December

Review by Matthew Grierson

To mount a successful play – like a successful strike – requires charismatic leadership and co-ordinated action. Unfortunately, The Matchgirls doesn’t always achieve this. But while the dialogue lacks rhythm and spark and some of the performances fail to catch, the musical numbers come together with a flair that the rest of the production would benefit from.

This much is at least appropriate: the story concerns women in an East End match factory in the 1880s who aspire to improve their working conditions and pay, and characters and performers alike are far more audible when working in unison than they are by themselves. The opening exchanges, which ought to twinkle with camaraderie and sardonic humour as the matchgirls discuss their lives and work, are delivered in static, isolated fashion, so I was grateful the songs came early, and often. True, the chorus can be hesitant to assemble, and the solos tend to lack punch when sung against the blaring synth – but once the numbers get going, it gives the show the vigour and ebullience to carry it over two and a bit hours.

 

As a series of set-pieces, then, The Matchgirls is fine, but the script, like the cast, can struggle to string them together. No sooner is one element introduced than there is an awkward transition to another, and it is difficult to see their connection. Rodger Hayward Smith’s turn as the glum Mr Potter is fun, and Terry Oakes has a good stab at the tyrannical foreman, but after their first appearances we barely see either character again. It is as though the play presumes the audience is on board with the women’s struggle and, however many diversions there are before the narrative gets into gear, we will bear with them.

The songs themselves are not immune to the disjointed quality of the script, being, largely, declarations of feeling or states of mind rather than driving the action. The music itself only seems to move things along when it comes to Winnie and Bert’s wedding, but at least it does so there with aplomb. Otherwise, we are party to remarkably little of the women’s struggle towards their inevitable, heart-warming triumph. In fact, I found myself smiling ruefully at one of the later choruses, which consists of the chorus sitting and complaining about waiting – I could sympathise – while the climactic confrontation between leading matchgirl Kate, firebrand Fabian Annie Bessant and the directors of the match firm was kept offstage.

Even as a story emerges, it develops fitfully and unevenly: on the arrival of Annie into proceedings, for instance, Kate expresses suspicion at the older woman’s middle-class interference, and yet in the next scene, she is singing the socialist’s praises to her love interest, Joe, whose turn it now becomes to air his suspicions. Similarly, when at the end of the first act Kate faces the dilemma of leading the strike or leaving with Joe it comes out of nowhere, and is then only picked up again in the second act after a lengthy exchange about Joe getting the sack, which it renders irrelevant. In the hands of more capable performers this may not matter, but Viv Wilson and Steve Hunter both seem a little stiff and awkward under the burden of their parts. They manage a pleasant duet together in a woodland glade, a setting effectively conveyed by simple lighting on the drapes, but even this tender moment feels a little tentative.

 

Much of this may just be first-night nerves, though, and there are plenty of indications that the show will warm up to the weekend. Indeed, it gets more confident as it goes along. When Winnie’s baby is stillborn, the matchgirls’ reaction feels truer than anything so far in the play, and subsequent rabble-rousing by Mrs Purkiss (Judi Phipps) strikes another significant emotional beat. Most of the women get a similar chance to shine – Marie Bushell clearly enjoys portraying Old Min and her gin win, Julie Smith is a capable and capricious Polly and young Darcey Hunter is a swaggering Jess.

No wonder the men can’t match up: and here, the script does get something right, showing them as the conservative force the women must overcome. Whether they have a good reason for their recalcitrance, seeing change as a threat to their jobs at the docks, or are more self-interested, and wouldprefer to race their pigeons rather than mobilise, the men are seen as holding the women back. Even the enlightened George Bernard Shaw, jovially essayed by Nick Barr (on double shift as Bert), is rather backward in his outlook and has to be won round by action rather than words. (And why does he find the idea of women going on strike such a novelty? Has he never heard of Lysistrata?) So the play remains alive to distinctions of class as well as gender … although it was rather ironic to hear St John’s Wood pooh-poohed for being posh in a church hall in Barnes.

It would in the end be doubly uncharitable to disavow the cosy good-heartedness of the play. First, this is an ambitious production for an amateur group to undertake, but with the songs and the simple but flexible set they certainly prove up to the challenge. Second, the Players donate their profits to a good cause, which this year is the Alzheimer’s Society, and to gauge from the opening night’s crowd they should do quite well.

The play ends with the victorious matchgirls being instructed to get back to work as the factory opens to them again. If this serves as an encouragement to the cast to stoke up the energy during the course of the run, they may well be able to strike it big.

Matthew Grierson
November 2017

Photography by RishiRai

 

From → Musicals, Reviews

One Comment
  1. Thanks for coming! I’m not quite sure how I feel about ‘jovially essayed’, but I’ve certainly had worse. We appreciate the review, thanks.

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