"Fizzing start turns to fizzle"
by Malcolm Eadie for remotegoat on 14/03/14

Sarah Daniels’s 1988 play starts excitingly enough as we are introduced to the gut girls, those foul-mouthed maids who earned their livings in the meat processing parlours of Victorian Deptford. Amy Gunn’s direction for OutFox Productions keeps the stage suitably busy as the girls rib each other round an excoriated carcass. All their characters are well drawn and a cracking start is further fuelled by the arrival of philanthropic widow Lady Helena (Gemma Paget) who is set on gentrifying the girls. Unfortunately, it them seems the writer realises she has a point to make and sets about the matter with implements far less subtle than those employed on the gutting-room floor. Ultimately, the scenes grow shorter and turn to soliloquies with the characters telling us how they feel, denying the audience the satisfaction of realising much for themselves.

There is little sympathy or understanding expressed for anything male in this play. Luke Stevenson appeared most comfortable as the comedian mercilessly heckled by the girls on a night out at the music hall, and as the landlord of their favourite pub, not quite tough enough for the trade he attracts. His versatility was limited though, by the pony-tail he kept for three of his four characters. Oliver Malam makes the best of Jim, as much a victim of class as the girls are when facing redundancy with no qualifications; but he lacked the necessary aristocratic bearing as Lady Helena’s suitor Edwin. Indeed, credible portrayals of the upper echelons were never fully achieved by this cast; the exception being Beth Eyre who moved seamlessly between Ellen, the earnest trade unionist wannabe of the early scenes and Priscilla, the mild-mannered battered wife from the posh side of town.

Daniels charts the journeys of the girls well as they move from a degree of freedom at the bottom of the heap, overworked, but relatively well paid, to futures of servitude and further drudgery, their ambitions pruned by stark reality after the gutting-hall is closed. Lucy Caplin was outstanding as Maggie, further imbuing the feisty survivor with a delicious foghorn voice. As one of two actresses who must double as gut girl mothers, Billie Fulford-Brown was most effective at showing a contrast between her characters. Katherine Rodden’s endearing Kate charts the exchange of carefree charm and young love for a steely ambition as she enters service. This determination even leads to shunning her former colleague Annie, a victim of circumstance if ever there was one, played with utter believability by Hannah Wood. Kate’s deliberately severed friendships are potentially, the most interesting journey in this story and it is a pity that further development has been stifled by the writer in pursuit of a broader canvass. There is always poignancy in showing aspiration versus reality, but ultimately, this play just fizzles out which is an anti-climax after such a fizzing start.

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