Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Lilies on the Land

the Lions Part
Fresh Glory Productions
Arts Theatre
(2010)

Publicity photo

This is a show put together from hundreds of letter from and interviews with members of the Women's Land Army, the 250,000 strong volunteer force whose hard work made a major contribution to ensuring Britain was fed during World War Two.

The company, with director Sonia Ritter, have cleverly interwoven them so that actresses Dorothy Lawrence, Kali Peacock, Sarah Finch and Rosalind Cressy can play four particular Land Girls from very different walks of life who become the main characters but also voice the memories of many others.

Much is direct recounting of experience but they also take on other roles as characters in a dialogue or together re-enact particular situations. Supported by music of the late 1930s and early 1940s period, songs like "Run Rabbit Run" that seem to have entered the folk memory of those who weren't even alive then, there is a strong sense of nostalgia and celebration but we also get a clear picture of the hardships and privations they went through as they struggle to learn the skills of farm workers, taking on every kind of agricultural and stock rearing job from ploughing to potato lifting, sowing to threshing, through long days in the sun and bitter winters often deep in mud and muck.

Looking back, when you aren't actually stuck in the middle of them, the horrors can seem very funny and this is a show packed with hilarious anecdote whether it is learning to milk ('Will the cow mind if I pull on them in the wrong order?'), trying to plough without one's glasses, accidentally wading chest high into farmyard muck, shaming a farmer into building a field loo, climbing back in the early hours after a dance, or the attractions of GIs.

There are some things that could never seem funny too: the farmer's wife who starved you, the farmer whom you had to bolt the bedroom door against, the POW who made sexual advances, the girl burned to death when going to rescue a crashed pilot. A song, presented as though performed by the Land Girls themselves at their own concert, makes fun of the paucity of what they got as the equivalent of a demob suit and the failure of government to acknowledge their contribution alongside those of the armed forces and other services is noted in the remark made by one of them in response to the announcement of wartime leader Winston Churchill's death: 'He jilted us.'

I didn't really see the point of the framing by Churchill's demise and his funeral with a gun salute, though it ties in with the use of his speeches and news bulletins to mark stages in the war.

Staged on a beautifully lit set (designer Jane Lenz Roberts, lighting Michael Scott), backed by a view of golden English countryside flanked by slatted farm outbuildings that also hinted at bomb damaged houses, with only a few chairs and a pile of luggage the emphasis is always thrown upon the actors and they give this material vibrant life. Many of the land girls whose stories were being told were there to see their stories told and I'm sure they felt that, unlike governments which only reluctantly paid out a resettlement grant and did not agree to award them medals until 2008, this show does them proud.

It is not a drama in the sense of a continuous story and at first I thought "Oh not another 'letters-show'!" but these performances soon won me over and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Until 17th July 2010

Sheila Connor reviewed this production, with a slightly different cast, at Guildford

Reviewer: Howard Loxton