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These Shining Lives

by on 10 October 2019

Warm, Absorbing and Uplifting

These Shining Lives

by Melanie Marnich

Park Players, Hampton Hill Theatre until 12th October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

Melanie Marnich’s play These Shining Lives tells the true story of a group of women working for the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois in the 1920s. The women painted the digits onto watch faces with radium that made the numbers glow in the dark. The jobs were popular as they paid well but the women neither knew, nor were they told, that the radium was a poison which would ultimately kill them. When they found out, eventually one of them took the company to court.

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The subject of women coming together and taking action to improve the conditions in which they work has produced at least two other popular dramas that spring quickly to mind from the last 50 years or so – Bill Owen and Tony Russell’s The Matchgirls, and Richard Bean and David Arnold’s Made in Dagenham – but of the three These Shining Lives might be best described as the most straightforward. It simply tells a story effectively.

 

In keeping with the clarity of the piece, Park Players have staged an efficient production of These Shining Lives. In the main auditorium at Hampton Hill, the stage is gently divided into sections: the factory benches at which the women work, the central character’s home, and various offices for managers, doctors and solicitors as required. Details are changed during the interval but there is little fuss and this works well. (The lighting shifts accompanying the changes of focus on stage were a little ‘clunky’ on Wednesday night but this was almost certainly a case of first night issues).

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There are many strengths to this production, casting being just one. The central character, Catherine, narrates the story as well as taking part in it. As played by Jo Viney, Catherine was an engagingly sweet-but-not-saintly woman. Her three co-workers Charlotte, Pearl and Frances (respectively Sarah Jane Brindley, Anneke Sando and Rebecca Tarry) formed an intelligently played and directed trio of colleagues whose relationships developed convincingly into friendships. Catherine’s husband Tom (Daniel Gask) also came across as a rounded character and the strong relationship between the two was convincing, (I once saw a professional production of Calendar Girls where two actors playing husband and wife, despite their best efforts, clearly did not like each other!)

Other smaller roles served largely to move the action on or provide a voice when required but nonetheless these were played with integrity by Sue Viney, Ian Ramage (doing a good job as a man struggling to live with himself) and Nigel Roberts. Direction was smart, the action moved along at a brisk pace.

Being a straightforward tale, the story is unsurprising and follows the expected arc. This is possibly where the play itself loses momentum. As written, the second half of the drama would benefit from turning the focus on to the court proceedings and the company’s position rather than dwelling further on the tragic impact on already established family and friend relationships. This though is a writing issue and Park Players can deal only with what they’re given.

The choice of sepia colours for costumes (by Kit Greenleaves and Vanda Gask), during the first act may or may not have been deliberate but either way worked perfectly and added to the atmosphere as did the women’s hair and make-up. I wondered at the reason for leaving Catherine in the same costume all the way through when others changed, as it might have enhanced the idea of time passing but this is no great issue. There was strong evidence of team work in this production as props too had been carefully chosen to complete the period look, the huge wireless radio in the factory was beautifully appropriate, and the special effects used at the end of Act I were striking without being melodramatic.

There was a tiny but bizarre scene between Catherine and her children which I wish had been done almost any other way possible, but that aside, this is a warm, absorbing and uplifting story, well told by Park Players and I can only recommend it.

Eleanor Lewis
October 2019

Photography by Philip Hollis

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