The Gut Girls
Rum and Monkey Productions
Fear of disease being spread by imported cattle led to the passing of the 1869 Cattle Diseases Prevention Act which introduced the slaughter of all imported cattle at the dock where they arrived.
The outdated dockyard at Deptford was converted by the Corporation of London into a cattle market and slaughterhouse with pens for 4,000 cattle and 12,000 sheep, which could be unloaded at three jetties. It is here, early in the twentieth century, that the women locals call “the gut girls” work elbow deep in blood and entrails, eviscerating carcases.
Working an exhausting 13-hour day and going home stinking of offal, the gut girls are considered the dregs of society but they are much better-paid than most working women, giving them a riotous independence.
Sarah Daniels’s play presents them, foul-mouthed and feisty, when a new 14-year-old recruit joins them, already an outcast because she has had an illegitimate baby. This provides the opportunity for explaining their job and their situation.
Director David England spares us the stink and the blood that makes the new girl retch and a visiting gentleman faint, using stylized intestines and no real butchering, for which perhaps one should be grateful. Indeed, it could still give that insight into other people’s working lives that audiences relish even were everything mimed, but this revival misses out by not presenting the unremitting grinding labour in which they are involved.
These women, huddled around a tiny token workbench on which they could never all work, ignore or even walk away from their work as they talk to each other. We get no real sense of their unsavoury drudgery.
That said, the actresses playing them give intense performances. Aimee Shields, Emma Laura Canning, Natalie Rosewood, Catherine Thorncombe, Caitlin Innes Edwards and Kate Craggs create strong characterisations, the last doubling as a timid and put-upon upper-class wife and Thorncombe as her maid and that of aristocratic widow Lady Helena.
Lady Helena, who has set up a club to improve the lot of working-class women, at first seems a well-meaning philanthropist. Katherine Blackshaw plays her with style and authority, able to manipulate men of her own class as well as issue orders to those she considers beneath her. Her idea of a better life for these women replaces their relative independence with domestic drudgery.
The gut girls largely treat Lady Helena and her schemes with derision, but her activities bring the attention of the authorities to the situation in the cattle market, resulting in changes that end the women’s employment. Daniels deals only sketchily with the way each of her gut girls reacts to the new situation, but the establishment who are concerned about keeping up the supply of domestics and cannon fodder are the winners and she doesn’t need to remind us that the World War I trenches are only a couple of years ahead.
Daniels’s portrayal of upper class men is scathing: a sexual predator and a sadistic husband (Jonathan McHardy and Louis J Parker). Her feminist viewpoint is more understanding in her picture of the men in the cattle market (whom they double) and compassionate in her picture of young butcher boy Jim (Jamie Benedict Savage, who also doubles a music hall entertainer).
This whole company makes an effective ensemble in a production played with an audience on three sides, often making entrances through them. Scenes move swiftly, their pattern established from the start with girls trundled around on the wheeled butcher’s block, with some tactful use of John Barber’s music to underscore some scenes.
However, they do have to battle a difficult acoustic and not everything is comprehensible, at least from where I was sitting. It is good to find a young company with strong voices but this space seems to turn volume into a bellow and a lowered voice inaudible, the effort to catch all the dialogue makes the evening seen longer than it should (though the fact that it went up late on press night didn’t help things).
Reviewer: Howard Loxton