I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire!

Bob Eaton
New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme

The cast of I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire!

Twenty years after it was last staged, Bob Eaton's play inspired by the stories of the "Roses of Swynnerton"—the women who made bombs and bullets in a munitions factory in Staffordshire during World War II—is being revived by the New Vic.

The play was staged three times in five years at the start of the 1990s and was part of a legendary era in north Staffordshire. Peter Cheeseman was the theatre's artistic director and was well-known for producing social documentary theatre—pieces which highlighted the individual concerns of the Potteries' communities.

I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire! catalogues the tales of the women who were called up for war work while men were conscripted into the forces.

According to director Conrad Nelson, the role played by munitions workers across the country is still largely unrecognised.

By the summer of 1942, no fewer than 18,000 people were employed at Royal Ordnance Factory number five at Swynnerton in Staffordshire. Most of them were filling bombs and bullets with volatile explosives; it was dangerous work and there were many casualties.

Eaton set out to encapsulate the world of these women who wanted fun and friendship to counteract the boredom and bleariness of life in the factory.

The play starts in 1939 when war is declared. The lives of one family, the Beresfords, are changed forever. Dad Sydney builds an Anderson shelter while 17-year-old Lily is called up to go to Swynnerton.

There she meets a variety of characters from all walks of life and from different parts of Britain. They encounter love and happiness as well as death and tragedy.

Music is an essential ingredient of the play. Producers of some of today's jukebox musicals should study I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire!, which is not in the least contrived; all the music fits perfectly, even the short extracts from some of the songs which set a mood or bridge a gap between scenes.

Even when one of the bosses at the munitions factory suggests the employees should put on a revue to boost morale, there's not even a hint of artificiality.

The songs are varied, ranging from "(We're Gonna Hang Out) The Washing on the Siegfried Line", "Button Up Your Overcoat" and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" to "In The Mood" and "Chattanooga Choo Choo".

The New Vic has put together a talented cast of ten who are competent actors and singers. They are also versatile musicians, playing trumpets, trombones, saxophones, a banjo, piano and drums.

It would be unfair to single out any of the cast as they all give spirited performances, many of them playing several roles in this lively ensemble piece.

The production is quite long at two-and-a-half hours, yet there is enough humour, pathos and a decent storyline—not to mention a totally unexpected ear-splitting bang—to keep the audience enthralled.

Nelson—who has both performed and directed at the New Vic—and his enthusiastic cast put on a show that goes a long way towards paying a proper tribute to the munitions workers. The “Roses of Swynnerton” invited to join the audience on press night looked impressed yet humble.

Reviewer: Steve Orme

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