REVIEWS

The Reviews Hub – five stars *****

This magnificent production, first staged last year at the White Bear Theatre Club as part of its Lost Classics strand, [is] now on its third run ... This is very much an ensemble piece, with tremendous performances throughout the 11-strong

all-female cast. Sally Mortemore is terrific as the unbending and thoroughly corrupt Helen, chillingly plausible as an upright and respectable pillar of the community. Elizabeth Donnelly is meltingly fragile as Christine, who can’t believe how low she’s sunk. Claire Louise Amias is outstanding as a woman despised for loving a man condemned by the rest of the world. This is a play in which men are completely absent, and yet which is driven by the absence of men. In the final scene, it is both fitting and wonderfully moving that the focus turns from “who the father is” of Vivianne’s child to “who the mother is”: that is what matters most. Like the unmarried mothers swept under the carpet by an uncaring society, this play has been unjustly forgotten, and Jonathan Rigby deserves great credit for reviving a play that should now remain a standard in the canon of 20th century classics. (April 2014)

 

Everything Theatre – four stars ****

Fantastic production [with] some of the best acting I've seen in a while ... Women of Twilight is a hard-hitting play which had me gripped from the very beginning and on the edge of my seat as the drama unfolded. The cast astounded me; in the group of 11 performers, there was not a single weak link. One particularly strong performance was from Sally Mortemore as Mrs Allistair, the cruel landlady. She played the role of this sinister and malicious woman incredibly well, and left a chill down my spine every time she exited the stage. Claire Louise Amias as Vivianne was also sensational; after her husband is hanged for murder, the emotion was so raw and powerful that many in the audience were wiping their eyes. Her run of bad luck continues ... [and] it was during these traumatic situations that the action portrayed on stage overpowered many audience members. It is rare to see acting with such real and intense emotion. The set was also brilliant; it depicts a dingy basement with sagging beds, dirty walls, and little comfort. This perfectly sets the scene for the grim drama that takes place. I overheard a woman in the audience comment on how accurate it was, having been brought up in the 1950s herself. The lighting also worked well, particularly at the end where it seemingly became darker during the play's climactic moments ... While this was a forgotten play for many years, I’m glad it has been revived and hope that it is not neglected again. (January 2014)

 

remotegoat – four stars ****

This play from 1951 was ripe for revival. Lovingly restored under Jonathan Rigby’s precise attention, the traffic of the stage involving 11 cast members is managed seamlessly in the small playing area ... Designer Olivia Knight has clearly taken pains to achieve authenticity of detail and there are fine performances throughout from the all-female cast ... Posh girls Veronica and Christine remind us that the stigma of pregnancy outside wedlock was not confined to any particular strata, and Vanessa Russell’s bullying, gobby survivor Jess relishes every variation she can employ to remind them of this. Amy Comper takes her pretty Veronica from self-denial to candid reality. She is aided by Francesca Anderson’s gritty realist Olga, who we know will ultimately triumph in her own way. The story of Elizabeth Donnelly’s Christine is more ambiguous, but she rarely forgets her manners and touchingly tries to consider the needs of others. As Rosie, Ailsa Ilott shows just the right measure of fair-weather pragmatism for her situation. As the girlfriend of a convicted murderer, Claire Louise Amias rises to the challenge of taking Vivianne from brittle victim to supportive sister to reinvigorated steely avenger ... Towering over the proceedings is the malevolent figure of Mrs Allistair, played with menacing mendacity by Sally Mortemore. She strides a fine line as the villain, but pulls back from tipping the show into melodrama when it could so easily happen. Eugenics was still a popular concept and it is easy to see how this character despises the special needs of the twisted and servile Sal, her contortions created with craft by Emma Reade-Davies. (January 2014)

 

What's On Stage – four stars ****

Sylvia Rayman's all-women play, a seldom-seen work from the early 1950s, is slowly harrowing to watch. The production is played out entirely in the cramped, unwholesome sitting room of a shelter for desperate single mothers, and bears witness to their suffering, much ignored at the time. The arrival of a well-spoken new guest, Christine, played with charm and empathy by Elizabeth Donnelly, introduces us gradually to the bleak situation she will come to share with a host of others ... The play – called ‘hysterical’ at the time – does not seem melodramatic now. There is no shortage of tears, but the outbursts held back are just as affecting. Many desperate exchanges are played with no more than the hint of a tear glistening in an eye. Indeed, a sort of Blitz spirit punctuates the gloom, as the girls rally round each other in hardship and smile through the sadness. There are even moments of humour, particularly from Veronica (Amy Comper), a Hermione Granger figure fallen on hard times ... The women’s struggles with their landlady, their men and their children swell to a crescendo for the final scenes – a procession of deeply sad moments which threaten to shake even such a blighted house out of its stupor. There is little to smile at in Jonathan Rigby’s latest production, but its emotional force is undeniable. (January 2014)

 

Female Arts – four stars ****

An excellent production, with some stellar performances ... The production is certainly Gothic and gritty enough to give sufficient weight and drama to the proceedings. The set and costume is grottily accurate and the space at the White Bear is of a size that one really feels the claustrophobia of the cramped accommodation thanks to being in such close proximity to the action. However, what really makes [Jonathan] Rigby’s version work, particularly with a play that could easily slip into melodrama, is the truthfulness of the performances. It is difficult to pick out any particular performance as stand-out, as they are all beautifully observed and sympathetically played, but one must give credit to Claire Louise Amias for her uninhibited and extremely moving portrayal of the complex Vivianne. Elizabeth Donnelly as Christine feels as though she has literally been plucked from a 1950s film, in the best possible way of course, and brings a gorgeous softness to the character. Emma Reade-Davies is insanely watchable as the housemaid Sal with her portrayal of Sal’s physical and learning disabilities, which are sensitively and believably done. (January 2014)

 

Views from the Gods – four stars ****

Sylvia Rayman's play Women of Twilight is set in those old dark days for women, back in the aftermath of WWII, when rationing was still in force and before the sexual revolution of the Swinging Sixties. Her writing is all the more bleak when you consider it was of its time, and that when Women of Twilight was first staged Rayman was not armed with the knowledge that life wouldn't always be that grim. It's a sobering thought if ever there was one ... The set is suitably dank, with designer Olivia Knight providing us with chipped and ripped walls, and the sort of thick black mould that is only caused by too many people living and breathing in a poorly ventilated space ... Over the course of the play director Jonathan Rigby connects us with all the girls, their individual back stories distinct. By gradually making us care about not just one character, but another and another – the conclusion is surprisingly emotional, and Rigby does Rayman's original intent proud. With Women of Twilight currently into its third run – the first two at the White Bear – theatre company 11F clearly believe this is a story worth telling. They're not wrong. This is a powerful and compelling revival. (April 2014)

 

Islington Gazette – four stars ****

Set in a baby farm in the early years of the Welfare State, the focus is fixed on the fortunes off 11 women placed within the pressure cooker of a confined space, where the dilapidation of the environment is almost as coarse as the wider social attitude that looks down on them with disdain. Personalities clash and egos collide ... There are a number of inspired brushstrokes ... Sally Mortemore's Helen oozes a surreptitious venality. Special mention must also go to Elizabeth Donnelly (Christine) and Christie Banks (Molly), who shine particularly brightly and deserve broader acclaim ... Looking back now, [the play] can be seen as a strong marker of how far we've travelled as a society in a relatively short period. Yet the content also throbs with a mournful essence that remains disappointingly familiar. For at its heart it speaks of the good, the bad and the ugly of human personality. And that is something that is eternally relevant. (April 2014)

 

Off-Stage Magazine – four stars ****

Whilst sympathetic to the plight of the young women I was also gripped by the engaging drama that unfolded. The play could loosely be described as a thriller. All the characters are believable due to the understanding and delivery of Jonathan Rigby's direction. Olivia Knight's effective and simple period design and Chloe Cammidge's costumes cleverly put us in the 1950s. But it is the acting that keeps this play flowing and every one of the actors is well cast. All of them deserve a credit, especially Claire Louise Amias, whose RADA training shines through. Sally Mortemore's chilling, vulture-like persona is just about as good as you could ever get. My only disappointment is that Maggie Robson's superb cameo appearance as the nurse comes so late in the play and her part is so brief ... The play really works. What was particularly memorable was the intense concentration of the audience, some of whom were visibly moved at the end. Proof of a company that is deeply involved and believe in the characters they are portraying. Try to catch it if you can. It is one of the most interesting and moving plays I have seen this year. (October 2013)

 

Everything Theatre – four stars ****

This lost play is definitely worthy of revival. The entire story is set in the living room of a house owned by Helen ‘Nelly’ Allistair (Sally Mortemore) in or near London in 1951 ... The arrival of Christine, played by Elizabeth Donnelly, also serves as our introduction to the characters and the set-up. She is horrified when she realises that her rent money only provides a bed in the living room alongside Vivianne, played by Claire Louise Amias, a prickly young woman whose boyfriend is on trial for murder ... The other vital piece of the jigsaw is Sal, played brilliantly by Emma Reade-Davies. Being physically and mentally impaired makes her an undesirable in the 1950s but Nelly uses her as slave labour to look after all the babies and toddlers in the house. It gives a shiver down the spine to think that this was a mere 60 years ago. The all-female cast provide an exceptional ensemble performance of this piece. I was enthralled throughout and applauded the cast with a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye. A gentleman seated behind me made a swift exit after what sounded like a failed attempt to hide his emotions. I’d love to see this play gain fresh recognition. (October 2013)

 

What's On London

A truly great evening of theatre ... Despite its grim subject matter it’s a delight to watch from start to finish due to the delicate and careful performances. Christine, one of the central heroines, lovingly ennobled by the talented Elizabeth Donnelly, first appears as a flower about to be crushed. The school-mistressy landlady [is] chillingly embodied by the otherwise delectable Sally Mortemore; hers is quite a performance ... Her housemaid perhaps unsurprisingly has learning difficulties, and Emma Reade-Davies rises to the challenge with empathy and sensitivity. Camaraderie prevails, not least personified in the charming and adept acting of Francesca Anderson as Olga. Veronica, a deb down on her luck, adds another angle amidst the agony. In Amy Comper’s capable hands we warm to her as the narrative progresses. The highly creditable cast each lend equal weight and support to this prestige production. Christie Banks offers a great turn as Molly, as does Virge Gilchrist as the nurse. Ailsa Ilott and Vanessa Russell are superb sparring partners, and Emma Spearing shines as Laura. Then there’s the dour, sour (for good reason) blonde, Vivianne. Claire Louise Amias’ underplaying is masterful. She possesses the just-right amount of knowingness with an underlying resentment bleeding through ... Amias deserves recognition for one of the most affecting female portrayals you will see anywhere on the London fringe. Women of Twilight is intense and only gets more so ... The clever and beautiful ending, loose ends knitting together, is, typically, both satisfying and heart-rending. (April 2014)

 

The Spectator

Rewrite the history books! Tradition tells us that kitchen-sink drama began in 1956 with Look Back in Anger. A season of lost classics at the White Bear Theatre has unearthed a gritty below-stairs play that predates John Osborne’s breakthrough by five years. Women of Twilight by Sylvia Rayman (which has transferred to the Pleasance) was a thumping West End hit in the early 1950s ... The setting is a lodging house in Hampstead where unmarried mothers are crammed together, three to a room. These were tough times and Rayman’s script spares us none of the horrific details ... Jonathan Rigby’s timely revival looks and feels absolutely authentic. The seedy basement drips with intrusive moisture and you can almost hear the squelch of the rugs as the characters cross the stage. The paintwork is done in a horrendous municipal fashion popular in postwar years: dark brown to waist height, and lighter beige higher up. The women, by contrast, wear exquisite clothes, cheaply bought but lovingly renovated. The National should send an emissary scurrying to see this play. It could easily become a hit all over again. (April 2014)

 

The Guardian

When 28-year-old Sylvia Rayman's drama premiered in 1951 it was dismissed by some critics as 'hysterical' – prompted no doubt by prejudice against a female writer and an all-female cast ... But it is a gripping, eminently watchable melodrama, and endlessly fascinating as it lays bare the attitudes of the 1950s by bringing together a cross-section of women from all classes and depicting them warts and all. Female bitchiness and female friendship are both explored, and it provides a clutch of meaty female roles, of which this cast takes advantage. [Sally] Mortemore is creepily convincing as the malevolent Helen, [Elizabeth] Donnelly captures Christine's dawning realisation that all is not what it seems, Vanessa Russell exudes easy self-interest as the corrupted Jess, Emma Reade-Davies is moving as Sal, and Claire Louise Amias is magnificent as Vivianne, a fool in love but definitely not a fool in other ways. (January 2014)

 

Time Out

Gothic social realism is not a genre one sees that often. Sylvia Rayman’s 1951 debut – a full five years before John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger – is almost Dickensian in flavour. She concocts a stark and uncompromising portrait of an exploited underclass, in this instance the stigmatised single mother, but gives it a sharp twist of noir ... Jonathan Rigby has struck gold by dusting down Rayman’s forgotten drama ... It’s a beautifully balanced piece for a strong all-female ensemble and Olivia Knight’s design – though light on squalor – catches the bleakness of the postwar, pre-welfare period ... Rigby handles each woman’s individual story with all the delicacy they deserve. (January 2014)

 

The Stage

Rayman is a dab hand with dialogue and her characters are rich, rounded and, in Jonathan Rigby’s sharply acted production, easy to empathise with. The impressively large and all-female ensemble performs Rayman’s charmingly archaic script – peppered as it is with ‘pal’, ‘kid’ and ‘duckie’ – with crystalline precision, relishing each fruity vowel. Olivia Knight’s tea-stained aesthetic and [Chloe Cammidge's] detailed costumes add to the feel of period authenticity. Claire Louise Amias and Elizabeth Donnelly are warmly convincing as heroines and friends Vivianne and Christine. Ailsa Ilott as plucky Rosie, Vanessa Russell’s loud-mouthed Jess and Francesca Anderson’s Olga bring some much-needed dynamism and spark to Rayman’s pious, if well-observed, play. Sally Mortemore is a deliciously haughty villainess as unscrupulous landlady Mrs Allistair, stalking around the stage like a praying mantis about to strike. (January 2014)

 

London Grip

A remarkable rediscovery, well worth seeing ... Closely allied to – but very different from! – Call the Midwife, Rayman’s 1951-52 drama focuses on the unhappy fate of unmarried mothers in a way we might find hard to completely comprehend today. Jonathan Rigby’s revival – with its all-female cast of 11 going against the normal run of the mill casting requirements – should be seen for the emotional honesty and authenticity of its production and performances. Particularly outstanding are Elizabeth Donnelly and Claire Louise Amias as Christine and Vivianne, two of the mothers who strike up an unlikely friendship. But there is able support too from half a dozen others ... In designer Olivia Knight’s dank and dreary basement set, carrying all too convincingly the awful hallmarks of 1950s austerity, the poignancy of Rayman’s message comes through undimmed. And glowing. (January 2014)

 

Atomies

Mumsnet would be in meltdown if its users experienced one hundredth of the injustice on display in this astonishing, eye-opening piece of social realism ... Tremendous performances from each member of the 11-strong all-female cast ... Absolutely stunning. (October 2013)

One test of a great play and a great production is how they stand up to second helpings. Both Rayman’s play and this cast pass with flying colours, delivering an even bigger emotional impact ... It’s difficult to describe exactly how Elizabeth Donnelly and Claire Louise Amias achieve the powerful emotional effect they do. (January 2014)

 

Curtainly

It’s not surprising that this play shocked in its time – an exposé of a deeply uncomfortable subject, written by a woman and featuring not a single man in its world. It’s an honest, brave and tender play (here in a staging that brings out all of these qualities) ... There are some wonderful lines about kippers and pressure cookers (delivered with relish by Vanessa Russell), and Sally Mortemore is a suitably spidery villain ... It’s wonderful to see such a strong ensemble cast at work on the fringe, all playing with complete conviction ... Special mention goes to Elizabeth Donnelly, who manages to make the fragile innocence of her gateway character engaging (no easy task); the quietly intense, deeply felt performance of Claire Louise Amias, stigmatised by a murder committed by the man she still loves; and Emma Reade-Davies, who gives an affecting portrayal of Sal, tackling her disability with restraint and sensitivity. The direction too is sure, making effective use of the space ... There’s much to like in this tight, riveting production, and the director is right in describing the play as worthy of more attention. (April 2014)

 

Everything Theatre

An intelligent revival of a deeply evocative play from the post-war era [which] highlights some important points in the struggle for women’s rights ... Women of Twilight is a play which really deserves to be seen by many more people. [It] opens on the set of a clapped-out boarding house bedsit. When the genteel Christine (played sympathetically by Elizabeth Donnelly) arrives from hospital with her new-born son she is shocked at her squalid surroundings. Yet there are many other women like her, suffering a similar fate at the hands of landlady Helen (played with silken malevolence by Sally Mortemore). Pregnant widower Vivianne (played with gravitas by Claire Louise Amias) arguably receives the worst of Helen’s malice ... I enjoyed the costumes, hairstyles and strong all-round performances. The 1950s tone was distinctive; it showed how rigid class attitudes were then, and how the shame of having a child out of wedlock transcended other taboos of the day. Themes of friendship and the endurance of the human spirit were touchingly explored too. It was also fascinating to see how well this revival holds up; though squarely in the genre of melodrama, I did not feel the impact of the issues was diminished by time. Sadly, there will always be unscrupulous individuals who seek to exploit the least fortunate ... This is a play with a strong social conscience which resonates as strongly today as it did then. (April 2014)

 

A Younger Theatre

Jonathan Rigby’s production delves right into the heart of the tiny home that these women share ... [Their] strained and tense lives are captured superbly by a strong cast of clearly defined characters ... Sally Mortemore shines as the steely Helen. Her cold and hardened tone is deeply affecting, her steps across the stage are slow and calculated, and as piercing as her strong jaw and focused eyes. Her mere presence on stage creates a disconcerting atmosphere that echoes throughout the small White Bear Theatre. The design by Olivia Knight aptly reflects the claustrophobic atmosphere of oppression that the women in the house feel: one of the beds lies just in front of the audience’s feet, and scenes are played out right up to this boundary. Rigby’s staging complements this, with the end of Act One building to a moving climax as Vivianne (played by Claire Louise Amias) pulls focus with an emotional outpouring, standing still downstage – within touching distance of the front row. Vanessa Russell (Jess) also deserves a mention, bringing humour through her brazen comments, and Amy Comper’s naïve portrayal of Veronica brings light relief with her clipped and whiny tone. It is the combination of strong actors that drives the plot forward. (January 2014)

 

Reviewsgate

Throwing light on the dark world of the dispossessed ... As if rediscovering Sylvia Rayman’s controversial 1951 success wasn’t enough, actor Jonathan Rigby has directed a production with a good, and at their strongest deeply moving, cast. If Rayman’s play doesn’t entirely wipe the floor with A Taste of Honey, it’s a better-structured, wider-ranging account of dispossessed women than Shelagh Delaney’s. And it suggests, in title and subject, Maxim Gorky’s classic The Lower Depths ... From the sinister, twilit opening when innocent Christine arrives, it’s clear that smartly dressed,

clipboard-wielding Helen isn’t likely to be the philanthropically minded person she claims ... It might look back to Dickens, but also forward to a modern age where support for people in difficulty is deregulated and put out for profit. Not that Rayman, writing as post-war Labour Britain was shifting to Conservative control, states any political agenda. It shows, though, that her play is strong enough to hold a mirror to more than one generation ... Sally Mortemore’s Helen is a commanding monster whose callousness is increasingly revealed, along with her underling, Vanessa Russell’s loud, pugnacious Jess. It takes the authority of Maggie Robson’s nurse, called in at a crisis, to set matters right. But, among the varied, well-portrayed women, it is the eventual friendship of two differently bereaved women, Claire Louise Amias’ Vivianne, who thought she would never find a friend in the world, and Elizabeth Donnelly’s trusting, hopeful Christine that lets this Twilight end in a warm glow. (January 2014)

 

 

 

 

 

 

VERONICA, OLGA

Photo: Diana Vucane