The Beauty Parade
Wales Millennium Centre / Kaite O'Reilly
Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre
The Beauty Parade is named after the World War Two initiative in which female operatives, working under the aegis of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), played a significant role in the Allied war effort, helping to defeat the Nazis via sabotage and subversion.
While the names of several of these agents (e.g. Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom, Noor Inayat Khan) have subsequently entered the public domain, this new piece from Kaite O’Reilly seeks to pay tribute to their contribution in a visually and aurally lyrical rather than a journalistic manner.
A collaboration between O’Reilly (who directs, alongside Phillip Zarrilli), composer Rebecca Applin and Sophie Stone, one of Britain’s most prominent Deaf actors, The Beauty Parade aims to tell the story using a theatrical language which takes its lead from Stone’s expertise in extending sign language into the realm of choreography. The programme notes tell us that Applin composed her score using Stone’s visual “translations” of O’Reilly’s text as a starting-point.
Even before the action begins, one is struck by Simon Wells’s imposing set, which is dominated by a large, sloping, military style hut, which operates as a changing room, as well as a vantage point. Ash Woodward’s video backdrop integrates aesthetically ambitious subtitles alongside ominous skies dotted with parachutes. The sound (Hedd Davies) and lighting design (Lee Curran) is equally doomy.
From the very beginning, it is clear that this will not, at least on an individual level, be an entirely happy tale. Stone’s down-to-earth SOE officer, Atkinson, tells us of communications not received from those she has sent out into the field—we later learn that the average longevity of an agent was six weeks. Nevertheless, we begin on a cheery note, with a party atmosphere (the song “Paper Doll” pointedly plays), as we are introduced to our two symbolic heroines.
Anne-Marie Piazza plays the South Wales shopgirl, fluent in French (thanks to her mother), who seems to have signed up out of naïve patriotism, without being entirely aware of what her service will entail. Georgina White is the more cynical, glamorous nightclub singer, ready to use her womanly wiles to obtain information and subvert morale. By accident or design, the two look as though they could be sisters.
We are taken through the rigorous training process, involving the handling of firearms, psychological self-transformation and instruction re the best way of taking a cyanide capsule when all is lost. We then watch as Piazza’s character is parachuted into France, only to be met with scepticism by the Resistance, at least until she unpacks the vital supplies she has secreted about her person.
She and White’s character briefly meet after she arrives in Paris with her secret radio equipment, the very possession of which is a capital offence. The cabaret entertainer, meanwhile, is living the high life, painfully aware that she is despised for “consorting” with German officers and that, even if she is not unmasked, things may not go well for her after the war.
Applin’s songs are melodic, in the contemporaneous revue style, and O’Reilly’s lyrics are alternately poetic and didactic—pointing out that the importance of the agents’ efforts are downplayed, both at the time and subsequently, because they are “only” women. To a large extent, the score is played live by the actresses, White (piano) and Piazza (cello and piano-accordion), both impressively multi-skilled.
There may well be a metaphor inherent in Stone’s balletic performance as the sadly dutiful Atkinson—her deafness as much an invisible difference as the spies’ true identities and intentions.
The plot does seem to flounder around in the present tense, especially as we approach the denouement; and there isn’t as much detail of the agents’ espionage activities as there might be—perhaps to avoid sacrificing audience sympathies or indulging in gung-ho action-movie cliché. Nevertheless, the elegiac conclusion is well-earned.
The narrative of The Beauty Parade is grim, but counterintuitively the show is beautiful to look at and listen to. This is an inventive presentation of stories which should never be forgotten.
Reviewer: Othniel Smith