In the 1950s, Freda Jackson was the scariest actress in Britain, if not the world. ‘Baleful’ about sums her up – and the evidence is right up there on the screen in her numerous film appearances.
For a long time, however, one of these films persistently eluded me. Women of Twilight, in which she co-starred with the luminous Rène Ray, was based, I knew, on a hit play from 1951. It also had the distinction of being Britain's first ‘X’ film. But in the days before instant accessibility became a given, it had become extremely difficult to find.
More recently, leafing through my ageing copy of Frances Stephens’ third Theatre World annual, I stumbled across a pictorial feature on the original West End production and was immediately intrigued. Doing a bit of research, Sylvia Rayman’s extra-ordinary play became more fascinating by the minute...
How could it not, with ingredients like these? An unknown 28-year-old author who was waitressing in a Finchley Road milk bar when her first play was given a try-out in Hayes by director Rona Laurie... The play then being remounted by Anthony Hawtrey at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage, just a stone’s throw from the aforementioned milk bar... The Embassy version doing so well in its three-week run that, having closed on a Sunday, it was able to re-open at the Vaudeville Theatre just three days later... The play then being filmed prior to Hawtrey reviving his production at the Victoria Palace in a twice-nightly format. (Twice-nightly? Hard to credit nowadays.)
And here’s the most intriguing ingredient of all. ‘London’s Most Daring Play’, as it was advertised, had an all-female cast, with no fewer than 11
fantastically good parts. In a decidedly limited field (The Women, The House of Bernarda Alba, Top Girls, the entirely forgotten Nine Till Six, a handful of others), Women of Twilight distinguished itself by its provocative theme (single motherhood) and a startling vein of gritty social realism shot through with Rayman’s unmistakably Gothic sensibilities. A peculiar combination, you might think, but brilliantly achieved.
So I read the play and was stunned by it. Without giving anything away, the rawly emotional endings of Act 1 Scene 1 and
Act 2 Scene 2 simply floored me. Rayman was clearly something of a magpie (in the best sense), given to stirring all sorts of fascinating things into the mix. The unmarried mothers’ exploitative landlady, Nellie Allistair (“a revolting character” and “ghoulish creature,” according to contemporary critics), is sufficiently ghastly to remind the viewer of such 1950s monsters as John Reginald Christie (sharing, for example, his unorthodox approach to horticulture). And her opposite number, the prickly but vulnerable Vivianne, is at first a figure straight out of film noir; the backstory regarding her criminal lover suggests that Rayman had sat in the one-and-nines in 1950 and seen Dirk Bogarde as the delinquent anti-hero of The Blue Lamp. (She was probably also familiar with the 1948 releases Good-Time Girl and No Room at the Inn and other controversial British films of the period.) Yet these genre affiliations, delightful in themselves, do nothing to compromise the play’s vivid characterisations and its core of emotional truth.
So with all this – and much, much more – going for it, why, I wondered, was Rayman’s play almost as comprehensively forgotten as Nine Till Six? It seemed obvious to me that, 60 years on, it had passed through the awkward ‘dated’ phase and become truly vintage – a genuine classic, opening a window onto the injustices of austerity Britain and giving an intimate collective insight into women’s lives such as very few plays achieve. It seemed obvious, in short, that I had to revive it. The first revival, to my knowledge, in over half a century.
In resurrecting Women of Twilight, I was extremely fortunate in getting together some really brilliant actresses; in fact, there’s one comment from an audience member that I particularly treasure. “The most powerful collection of female performances in London.” Seeing the emotional impact the play has on modern audiences is something to treasure too. Grim though these single mothers’ plight may be, it clearly remains relevant in the 21st century.
Sylvia Rayman has been dead for nearly 30 years but I hope she would be pleased with what we've done.
Oh, and the film version? Yes, I eventually located it – around the same time as I got hold of the play text, as it happens. And it’s good. But not as good as the play. The play is...
Well, I’ve said it already, haven’t I?
‘Classic’ is the word.
© Jonathan Rigby 2013-17