Felix O'Brien with music and lyrics by Nadine Wild-Palmer and Louie Lee
King's Head Theatre
VE Day—Victory in Europe Day. The war wasn’t actually over on 8 May 1945, victory over Japan wasn’t achieved until September after the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it was a cause for rejoicing and it signalled that the end was coming and that our boys would come home at last. But while the crowds were out on the streets and whooping it up, there were some for whom it brought trepidation. Would the man who went off to war have changed when he came back? Or perhaps they had.
Felix O’Brien’s hour-long play, which he says was inspired by Nadine Wild-Palmer and her music, starts off in the Gateways club that, if you know your LGBTQ+ history (and this play is part of the King’s Head’s Queer Season), was in a basement in Chelsea on the corner of Kings Road and Bramerton Street. Underground in both senses for with just a door on the street you had to know it was there.
It is here that innocent seeming Elizabeth wanders in, seeking shelter when caught in heavy rain on the way home from her war work, or so she says.
Expressing surprise that there aren't any boys there, she’s told that it is Ladies’ Night, though the personable woman with the Irish lilt she’s talking to adds, “at Gateways, every night is Ladies’ Night”.
Scene two is the same some days later and Betty is back, this time in trousers, and though she is concerned at not hearing from boyfriend Jack who is “over-there” fighting for king and country, she is feeling so good that she did a cartwheel in the park when she came out of the factory. That must be when she lost her keys. Now she can’t get in or sort things out until the morning. Irish Ronnie with the sleeked back short hair and smart trousers (whom Betty was clearly coming back hoping to bump into) offers to put her up.
So begins a wartime romance that thrives until after years of silence there is a letter from Jack and the coming of peacetimes brings Betty back to a conventional marriage and straight life.
O’Brien doesn’t offer a detailed history, just the important moments, but the script and Stephen Lloyd’s direction handle things with sensitivity. Though we learn a little of Betty’s back-story we don’t find out much about Ronnie but Caoimhe Farren makes her a convincing character with an admirable performance that gives the play its centre.
There is an uncertainty about Katy Allen’s Betty that needs to be given more shape to identify it as part of the character: her pretended innocence at first and her fear of the reaction of others if she plumps for being her real self, but there is a realism to the women’s relationship though it is given a more formalised, very simple setting.
The audience has to take the place of the club’s clients, with Ronnie chatting to people on a couple of occasions or sitting among them, but on an empty stage there are no other couples dancing or to push through to get to the offstage bar.
Nadine Wild-Palmer is there as singer Marlene, but she and Louie Lee on keyboard don’t really feel like club entertainers. Her songs are used to separate scenes or when music is demanded. I presume they offer appropriate comment, though they too easily became background colour when the lyrics perhaps deserved more attention.
Instead of being huddled together with other drinkers, Ronnie and Betty often converse at an unnatural distance apart, not shouting over other heads but opening things up to the audience and underlining the gap that exists between them in understanding and determination, in what they are prepared to do to be happy.
In some ways, this is a twentieth century Gentleman Jack situation but it is one that isn’t just limited to lesbians.
Amplified Theatre provides projected surtitles. To be always legible, they need to be brighter than the present green on black but the company must be commended for catering for the hearing impaired. Not many fringe shows do that.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton