The American Cold War strategist Neal Acheson famously remarked of post-1945 Britain that she had “lost an Empire and not yet found a role.” Post Brexit we are focusing on Global Britain. If any sector of our economy can punch above its weight on the global stage it’s surely the Arts. We have talent in abundance. A striking example is the annual Edinburg Fringe. For those of us too poor to attend in person we have a wonderful opportunity to see the pick of the 2023 season at the excellent Playground Theatre in West London, 10 minutes walk from Latimer Road tube.
The Playground Theatre is doing for West London what the Park Theatre is doing for North London. It’s a magnificent brand-new arts venue that deserves to be better known. I went along last night and saw a terrific double bill written by Gail Louw. Both plays last an hour and both are performed by a single actor.
Kicking off the evening is a fascinating portrayal of the Mitford Sisters. Rich aristocrats whose family predated the Norman conquest. (Nancy the novelist, Pamela the farmer, Diana the Fascist, Unity the Nazi, Jessica the Communist and Debo The Duchess). Perhaps the most famous group of sisters in Britain during the (last century. Emma Wilkinson Wright gives a tour de force as she does all the parts. She both convinces in her evocations of the sisters (the haughty Dianna, the simpering Unity, the world-weary Nancy and the ardent Jessica) and staying in character(s) on stage for an hour. Hats off to a feat of physical and mental endurance. Switching voice(s) register and body language she segways from sister to sister within seconds to maintain an uninterrupted monologue which takes us into the world of the Mitfords as it played out across the inter-war years. The lives of all the sisters are evoked but Emma focuses on Nancy, Diana, Unity and Jessica. Nancy as a novelist acts as the detached ironic observer commenting on the follies of her fellow sisters. The Writer Gail Louw clearly wants Nancy to act as her captain on the pitch as it were. The central battle is between the two closest sisters Unity and Jessica. As children, they shared a bedroom with a line down the middle. Unity had a poster of Hitler, and Jessica a poster of Lenin. The tragedy of family loyalty as against political ideology is wonderfully captured by Emma in her heartfelt reading of the sisters’ letters to each other from prisons or hospitals denouncing Nazis or Communists but insisting that as sisters we still love each other.
The second play The Good Dad is performed by Sarah Lawrie. Sarah paces the stage like a trapped tiger and with pent-up energy she gives a performance of outstanding veracity, vivacity and vitality. Set in the present the play is a very dark exploration of abuse within the family. Sitting on a stool like a latter-day Dave Allen, Sarah gives us the mother (no name given) the father David and their two daughters Caroline and Donna. The father David is to Donna what Hitler was to Unity. A grotesque authority figure who abuses their power to inflict terrible suffering on their young female victims. I’m sure Gail wants us to make the connection between the abuse within the family and the political abuse within Nazi Germany. The patriarchal family is the microcosm of the Authoritarian state. Again the Unity and Jessica relationship is mirrored in the Donna and Caroline dynamic. There is both fierce competition between the sisters (in one memorable scene Donna boasts that she has won the affections of Jack and that her rival Caroline is defeated, clicking her fingers as she does so, a wonderful moment) but also an unbreakable bond.
What I found most disturbing about this double bill was the underlying proposition that both The Mitford Sisters and the trio of women in The Good Dad (mother, Donna and Caroline) are inextricably trapped in various forms of sadomasochistic power dynamics. Stockholm syndrome is mentioned at one point. Clearly, Unity is a prime example of the latter syndrome. But so are most of the women. All the women portrayed are damaged. Even Nancy the novelist rich and living in a luxury flat in post-war Paris allows her man to take her money and neglect her.
Presenting us with the rich and famous Mitford Sisters and a much more ordinary everyday family these two plays show both the historical continuity of abuse and the fact that it affects every woman upper, middle, or lower class. A powerful and hard-hitting double bill that deserves to be seen as the issues raised are urgent, contemporary and ubiquitous.
Review by John O’Brien
A double bill by the multi-award winning playwright Gail Louw
THE MITFORDS – Starting at 7.30 PM
Performed by Emma Wilkinson Wright
Direction and Dramaturgy by Anthony Shrubsall and Sarah Lawrie
THE GOOD DAD (A Love Story) – Starting at 8.45 PM
Performed by Sarah Lawrie
Direction by Anthony Shrubsall
15 – 17 NOVEMBER 2023