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The Gut Girls

by on 25 March 2023

Cutting Edge Drama

The Gut Girls

by Sarah Daniels

The Questors Student Group at The Studio, Questors Theatre, Ealing until 1st April

Review by Michelle Hood

“Offal by name, and awful by nature” shouts one of the five young women working in a slaughterhouse, at the beginning of Sarah Daniels’ 1988 play The Gut Girls at The Studio in the Questors Theatre, Ealing.  We are back in 1897, in the Deptford Foreign Cattle Market, where five women toil thirteen hours a day slaughtering, cleaning and cutting-up cows, pigs and sheep.  

The play provides a glimpse into the gruesome bloody world of slaughtering, and introduces us to the bawdy beer-swilling women working there – a grisly reminder of the macabre jobs of yesteryear.  But the real impact of the play is what happens to these women when a curb is introduced on imported animals, which means the slaughterhouse has to close.  We then follow the blood, guts and tears of these bawdy hard-working women as they search for new roles, given the stigma of working in the slaughterhouse, a position in society barely above the status of whores and charlatans.

The ensemble of eight actors play numerous roles, which require frequent costume changes and many quick exits and entrances.  Director Richard Gallagher, the Second Year tutor, keeps a brisk pace by filling the stage with constant movement.  However, being a production by the Questors Student Group, we have to accept that the roles are all played by young actors, still learning their craft.  Not to detract from the energy and enthusiasm of the young cast, but the result limits the effectiveness of the play.

As for the five gut girls, there are indeed five fine interpretations.  Emily Hawley as gut girl Annie, the new girl in the slaughterhouse, delivers a poignant story direct to the audience about previously being in service, raped by the son in the house, then losing her child at birth from umbilical cord strangulation.  This is a powerfully delivered speech by Emily who also effectively plays two further characters including a maidservant.  Logan Crouch gives an amusing and animated performance as Kate, and I especially enjoyed her scene with Marco Boel, where they both dream of a future, happily running a toy shop and selling homemade wooden toys.  Hyssop Benson makes a touching and expressive Maggie, one of her domineering mother’s eleven children, as we follow her sad story where she was forced into an unhappy marriage out of financial desperation.  Layan Al Gurashi’s Ellen captures the spirit of the gut girls with her tireless campaigning for better working conditions and union protection – a marked contrast to her other portrayal as the brow-beaten character of Priscilla.  Also, a very credible and convincing performance to Ania Choroszczynska, playing the gut girl Polly.

Hannah Langan, in her acting debut, shows great poise and assurance as the aristocratic Lady Eleanor, pursuing her charity work; a confident performance by a promising newcomer.  Not to be out-shadowed by the women, the two male performers, Marco Boel and Jacob Chancellor, play six parts between them.  I found Jacob Chancellor’s extrovert music-hall entertainer great fun.  However, for me, there were no stand-out “stars”, in what was a good ensemble piece with a cast working well to support each other.

Scenes which work particularly well include the gut girls drinking in the pub, while watching a lewd entertainer – and the girls receiving lessons in servitude, including how to bow and scrape to please their paymasters.  The audience also enjoyed the many visual gags – for example, the reference to “fallen women” when the girls tumbled from their chairs to the floor – and the scene where Maggie is threatened by a man at knife point, only to brandish a butcher’s knife, twice as large.  Another surprising prop was a late Victorian projector as the girls settled down to watch a series of photographic slides. 

The worthy issues highlighted by writer Sarah Daniels were many, including the problems faced by women in a world devoid of contraception (with many asides about sausage skins), of male brutality against women and the barriers of class and gender to the progress of women.  There was also a strong sense of the emergence of female emancipation against the traditional background of male orientated society, an unequal society limiting women to sometimes brutal subjection and, where they were allowed to better themselves, limited to becoming only maids and kitchen staff. 

Finally, a word on modulation, because in a small acting space all the actors need to fully use modulation in their voices.   There were moments of shouting, which were appropriate in the text, but loss of depth and diction sometimes became apparent.   While these were young actors, they nevertheless needed to aim for more vocal variation without shouting.  One has to be aware, especially when performing a historical piece, that these are real people’s voices and an honest and sincere reflection of that needs to be shown.  Diction apart, this group of young actors were able to show me the plight of the Victorian working woman – it was a good and carefully paced performance, taking into account the many bitty scenes and the limitations of stage entrances.

Thank you for sharing this with the audience and, incidentally, well done on those hats!!!

Michelle Hood, March 2023

Photography courtesy of Questors

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