BWW REVIEW: Exploring A Lesser Known Part Of History, FALLEN Goes Inside A 19th Century Reform Home.
Saturday 8th April 2017, 7:30pm
Sport for Jove Theatre Company has teamed up with She Said Theatre and the Seymour Centre to present Seanna van Helten's new play FALLEN which aims to expose a lesser known part of 19th Century British and Australian history. Whilst most history books have focused on the men of Victorian England and it's colonies, FALLEN aims to share the story of the women that were sent out to help populate new settlements on the other side of the world.
Under the Penny Harpham's direction, an example of Charles Dickens and Miss Angela Burdett-Coutts home for the redemption of 'Fallen' Women plays out over two hours. The homes were designed to reform women, particularly those that had entered a life of prostitution and other illegal pursuits, to allow them to prepare for a more respectable life where they may become servants and housekeepers or even wives and homemakers. With the colonies on the other side of the world that were suffering from an imbalance of population with more men than women, the women were promised a sea passage to the colonies upon their completion of their training to go to Australia and start a new life away from the stigma of their past. In difference to places like the Magdelen Society homes and workhouses which operated on a theory of punishing routines, heavy labour and harsh physical punishment, homes like Dickens and Coutts' Urania Cottage sought to focus on their "Return to Happiness" rather than dwelling on their past. They encourage compliance and development through "Captain Maconnachie's Mark System", where points were awarded for good behaviour and points were deducted for undesirable behaviour.
Set designer Owen Phillips has created a set with a multitude of spaces to represent the home. He has kept the design simple with enough furniture to indicate the bedrooms, kitchen, vegetable garden and the Matron's office. The furniture and Chloe Greave's costume design is the main indicator of the mid Victorian England setting as the set is somewhat contemporary with the white walls to allow Michael Carmody's video design and Sian James-Holland's lighting design to be utilised with more flexibility.
The home is run by Matron (Lucy Goleby), a young widower who fluctuates between imposing order and discipline and seeking to befriend the women in her care. She originally has 4 girls or young women in her care. Most confident of the quartet is Rebecca Montalti's Isabella, often referred to as Bella, a more lasvisous type who bullies the other girls, her key target is the quieter goody-two-shoes Georgie (Eloise Winestock) who sees herself as different to the other girls. Julia (Moreblessing Maturure) is also quiet, apparently enjoying moments of solitude away from the noisy girls, but has formed friendships with Bella and Martha (Abbie-Lee Lewis), a younger girl who has taken to communicating with a brickmaker boy that passes the vegetable garden. Aside from Matron punishing Julia after falsely accusing her of breaking house rules, the main challenge to break the relative peace of the house is the arrival of another woman, the well educated and more refined Rosina (Chantelle Jamieson) who proceeds to ruffle feathers as the girls believe Rosina thinks she is better than they are.
The girls individual stories are gradually told, originally ment to be kept secret but Matron is working on the philospy of knowledge is power, getting each girl to divulge their secrets and in turn holding their shame of it over them. The four original girls have been given a sailing date which leads to apprehension and fear as they realise that they have to leave the safety of the home although some appear to be ready to get away from the gaggle of women that has its requisite level of bitchiness and mood swings.
Whilst an interesting insight into history, the pace of the work could do with tightening both in the direction and the writing. Harpham has opted to have Matron move with a slow sedately gravity but this comes across as awkward in the small space of the Reginald Theatre stage which presents the home as more of a cottage than a bigger house. The choice to spread the use of the stage to focus action in the far corners is also challenging. Julia and Martha's interaction in the cabbage patch is presented in the far right corner, partially behind a chaise lounge which for anyone not sitting in the right hand side of the theatre was potentially obscuring the performance. The language and expression also comes across as incongruous, particularly for the 4 original girls who present their dialogue with a studied formality that is unlikely. There should be more differentiation between Matron and Rosina's speech patterns to indicate a higher degree of education than the general inhabitants of the home would have had access to. There are also moments of playfulness which are not clearly defined as being a directorial choice to have the girls sharing jokes behind the Matron's back or if it is simply the performers deciding to play up to the audience potentially trying to convey more of their character's personality but coming across as too casual to be fully connected to the performance.
FALLEN is an interesting work and is important in exposing lesser known history but it could still use some finessing and tightening to reach its full potential and make a statement rather than just being an observation of the past.
April 6 - 22 2017