views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Gut Girls
Jack Studio Theatre
19th March 2014

★★★★☆

Katherine Rodden and Oliver Malam as Kate and Jim

Photography © Andy Forey

With women not getting the first hint of a right to vote until 1918, it might surprise you that at the turn of the century, there were women in South London doing lucratively paid - if menial and disgusting - work which many men just couldn't manage. But given they were ignored by society and the nature of the factory work was deeply unpleasant, maybe there's a reason the early swell of job-related "equality" isn't that fondly remembered. Working in such places, with high pay and a general sense of freedom, was arguably only a brief victory - and a small one at that.

In this staging of Sarah Daniels' The Gut Girls, we're immediately thrown into the Victorian world of the titular lasses, so-named because, well, they're girls wot gut meat for a living. New worker, Annie (Hannah Wood) is introduced to Kate (Katherine Rodden), Maggie (Lucy Caplin), Polly (Billie Fulford-Brown) and Ellen (Beth Eyre), who immediately sweep her under their collective wing, showing a kind of female solidarity which is often missing from today's bitch-eat-bitch world of work. Director Amy Gunn focuses on the dynamic between the girls, really bringing out the humour of Daniels' script. They're liberated, loving it and the ensemble has great rapport.

However despite its ostensibly comedic appearance, at its heart it's a very bleak tale. Ellen never gets her union off the ground, technology makes the women redundant, society rejects them all - and yet in this particular production, none of those themes feel particularly hard-hitting. The tragedy of Annie's background and the bone-chilling creepiness of Edwin (Oliver Malam) and Maggie's night-time encounter aren't brought out strongly, with the play losing some of its razor-sharp edge. These are two of several sacrifices that Gunn has made to transform the play from a drama into what is, on the whole, a comedy. But with that said, it's a deeply entertaining version, with the girls' easy banter and bad jokes about offal and entrails all very natural and funny.

Many of the laughs come from the well-meaning attempts of Lady Helena (Gemma Paget) to help the strong-willed girls better themselves - in her opinion. Paget's hypocrisy is never shown as a fatal flaw, more a device to get more chuckles. As I said, this is a light-hearted production, rather than a dramatic one.

Beth Eyre, Katherine Rodden, Hannah Wood, Billie Fulford-Brown and Lucy Caplin

Photography © Andy Forey

Fulford-Brown imbues her character with an equal blend of vulgarity and gentleness, achieving an almost impossible balance which instantly endears Polly to the audience. Rather than following Annie's development from a fallen woman into an independent honey makin' money, it's actually Polly who captivates us from the start. Eyre's passionate but brusque Ellen and meek Priscilla are also portrayals worthy of mention, it's not easy separating out different characters without turning at least one into a caricature, but Eyre manages well.

But what of the men? Well, Luke Stevenson's snarling foreman Harry puts us too much in the mind of Bill Sykes, but his portrayal of affable landlord Len - a character still seen in the East End to this day - is bang-on. In some ways, he is bit of a sad sack, but he's still a male oppressor, his offer of rescue comes with a ring on it. There's no help for altruism's sake. We don't spend much time with Jim (Oliver Malam), but Edwin (also Malam) has the right amount of slime and snark. Like Arthur (Stevenson), Edwin is hateful and serves only to make us identify more with the plight of the women.

With the play set in Deptford, it's nice to see it performed south of the Thames, not too far from its roots. I had initially feared that the Jack would be too cramped for this particular play, but set designer Rachel Ryan has transformed the space, with a raised thrust layout really opening it out and giving the girls enough room to stagger and dart about, wreaking havoc.

At around two hours plus an interval, The Gut Girls happily never feels overlong. Granted, it's not as emotional as it could be, but it's an amusing omp through a forgotten but important period of local history, with a touch of seriousness tacked on. Go on, give this play a butchers. It's got meat, and it's got style.

The Gut Girls ran from 11th to 29th March 2014 at the Jack Studio Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Crofton Park (National Rail)



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