The Firewatchers

Laura Stevens
Raising Silver Theatre
Old Red Lion Theatre
(2011)

The Firewatchers production photo

While many a play, film and TV show has portrayed the experiences of men during the war, few have put women in the spotlight.

Raising Silver Theatre is dedicated to doing just that - producing plays that bring the female experience to the stage.

Set during World War Two, when women were called up for compulsory war work for the first time, The Firewatchers illuminates the danger, responsibility and emotional turmoil suddenly heaped on the shoulders of women after the National Service Act was passed in late 1941.

One of the jobs women were given to aid the war effort was firewatching: standing atop buildings, such as factories, 24-7 to put out incendiary bombs and sound the alert for local fires.

It's on one such night that two women are thrown together - one an unmarried worker forced to frequent a bomb factory during the day and firewatch at night, the other the wife of the factory owner, travelling in from her country home to volunteer in the name of patriotism.

As they stand out on the roof, stripped bare and equally vulnerable, they realise no amount of fine clothing or street smarts makes a blind bit of difference when the Germans fly overhead - as liable to bring an end to one as the other.

Both actresses give captivating performances, bringing to vivid life characters that are warm and familiar, yet never caricatures.

Abigail Thaw's Catharine is full of upper class stereotypes. She struggles to dress appropriately for the task in hand, spreads a handkerchief to sit upon and invites Jean to break into dance and drink gin as though in a glamorous movie.

But her acute attention to detail means none of these gestures seem offhand. None are there purely to score a laugh or thrown in as lazy characterisation. While there are certainly humorous aspects of Catharine, Thaw also cultivates a deep emotional resonance that arouses sympathy and fondness for what could otherwise have been a standard upper class twit.

Michelle Tate's Jean is almost the polar opposite. She is resigned and practical, doing her duty not out of choice but because she has no choice. She's angry yet incredibly vulnerable.

As planes fly overhead she applies lipstick, not for the sake of vanity, but because her working class mother has instilled a strong sense of personal pride in her family, even in the face of death.

Intrigued and embarrassed by Catharine, Jean both idolises and despises her firewatching partner. During the evening the pair become friends, enemies, open up and just as quickly close back down as they struggle to come to terms with their wildly conflicting experiences of the war.

While hitting home with some devastating blows, Laura Stevens' sharp, witty script keeps the atmosphere light for the most part, easing us into the situation through subtly observed humour before using our affection for the characters to pull us into the darker elements.

The sparse set is impressively realised, as are the costumes - both delivering a faithful snapshot of 1940s London, while the savvy direction means there's never a dull moment as Katie Lewis's accomplished staging keeps us hooked on the mismatched duo from start to finish.

The Firewatchers is an effective and memorable show from a talented and ambitious company.

"The Firewatchers" runs until 3rd December 2011.

Reviewer: Kat Halstead