You wouldn’t necessarily know it walking out of Finsbury Park tube (where are the posters?) but a hundred metres away is London’s newest theatre, consisting of a medium-sized space, a tiny studio and a rather nice bar. In its first couple of weeks I’ve seen two plays there.
These Shining Lives, directed by Loveday Ingram, was adapted from a version premiered in Baltimore in 2008 and is based on the true story of four workers at Chicago watch factory US Radium Corporation, who painted the luminous dials on clocks and watches with a mixture of glue, water and radium, earning eight cents per piece. To keep their brushes sharp, the women were encouraged to lick them into shape. Many became sick and died.
The play eschews the operatic; rather than focusing on a Hollywood-style narrative where the women take on the factory owners and brave tabloid vilification to the sound of fortissimo strings, it is the story of Catherine Donohue (Charity Wakefield), framed through her relationships with her three workmates Charlotte (Honeysuckle Weeks, excellent), Pearl (Nathalie Carrington) and Frances (Melanie Bond) and her husband Tom (Alec Newman). As the women start failing physically, they are lied to by the company doctor who tells them to take aspirin and by their foreman (both played by David Calvitto), who tells them the company has their best interests at heart, but who sacks all four.
In the 1920s and 30s, women working was both novel and problematic; I’m informed by our resident A Level History student that 26 US states banned married women from working during the Depression. The sense of freedom that those eight cents a watch could buy underlined by the women’s trip to the beach one summer’s day, where they kick off their shoes and Charlotte uncorks her hooch.
As the story continues through the Depression, keeping their jobs and therefore not rocking the boat becomes imperative. Finding one doctor who finally tells them the truth about their ailments, the women’s submissiveness, learned through class and gender norms, still inhibits them from making a fuss; the decision to take on their former employers boils down to a poker game. I wasn’t completely convinced of the central couple’s chemistry or the shoehorned metaphor of time (time, clock faces… see what they did there?) that underpinned Catherine’s final monologue, but there is strong ensemble playing and the story is affectingly told. You will leave appalled that this could have happened in living memory.
The Thing About Psychopaths, by Ben Tagoe and directed by Rod Dixon for the Red Ladder Theatre Company, is not, as the title might suggest, a gore-fest but the story of Noel (a strong debut by Shawn Cowlishaw) and his bad angels. Noel begins as a naive IT worker in a City bank who, despite his moral qualms, gets embroiled in a fraud after being persuaded by trader Ray (Babajide Fado) and is found out. Taking the rap, he is sent to jail. Once inside a claustrophobic cell, he comes under the sway of Michael, whose back story is played with enormous verve and nuance by William Fox. Michael’s plot to attack the warder O’Boyle (Kyla Goodey) is foiled and Noel gets the upper hand. The trajectory from queasy novice to powerful bad boy is complete.
So a strong start for the Park Theatre’s first season. By the way, both productions were without interval. I like the tight focus and it’s great to have time to go for a meal afterwards, but I do wonder whether they’re missing a trick in bumping up the bar takings..