BWW Review: NO PLACE FOR A WOMAN, Theatre503
The two women tell two sides of the same story: the former - a Commander's wife whose biggest dream was to become a dancer but who was forced into marriage - recalls her life with her husband Frederick, the latter - a ballerina - explains how she was picked from a concentration camp because the Commander wanted a performer for his party. This word premiere sees Cordelia O'Neill's story of fear, love and survival guided by the passion for dance.
Gemmell and Paetz are fast-paced and sharp in their complex roles, and director Kate Budgen is able to coordinate their characters cleverly. By placing the women side by side as each performs one side of an imaginary conversation with an officer or the Commander, a haunting dynamic is born.
O'Neill's script is acute and intense, carving her lines so both sides fit in perfectly even though they belong to contrasting conversations. Though an inescapably sombre subject, the play lightens up briefly thanks to Gemmell's sarcasm and her character's quick-witted lines.
Her Annie is indisputably tough as a woman, but vulnerable and weak as a wife. "I tend to forget I have children," she casually says at the start, expressing how the life she is leading now was imposed on her by her family. Multiple times during the show she insists that she would have been a wonderful dancer and that if it had been up to her she would do that instead.
She's constantly seeking approval: from the interrogating officer, her husband, even from Isabella. Her insecurity is crystal clear as her fiddles with her rings and hair, and her vanity is played well by Gemmell, her movements contrasted with Paetz's.
The latter's grace and tenacity burst out of her character's elegant but shrunken figure. She fights fear with her passion, which almost becomes a character in itself. Paetz's will to survive but readiness to die in order to free herself are portrayed by the actress courageously and earnestly, and sharply juxtaposed with Annie's choices. Movement director Lucy Cullingford's contribution is key for these two women who dance both for themselves and to keep living.
In this female-driven production, men are merely ghosts on the stage. From the Allied forces to the Commander himself, they never take a shape, just like the ever-present cellist Elliott Rennie who accompanies the performance (though the sound design is conceived by Ella Wahlström). He is hidden behind a screen in Camilla Clarke's clever set.
The black backdrop makes the women stand out, and surrounds them with the dread and horror of the war. Through ingenious lighting work, Sarah Readman separates and unites their lives, while at the same time transporting them from the rooms where they're being interviewed to the Commander's house and concentration camp.
Together with Budgen's direction, Clarke and Readman were able to place Annie and Isabella in very specific environments, while at the same time letting the audience do it with their imagination. The decision to divide the stage from the crowd by a translucent screen is intriguing and gives the show an opaque tonality while separating the two character's experiences from everything else.
A story about women, told by women, and largely created by women, Small Things Theatre's production sees many prominent creative roles attributed to them. Even though it shouldn't be news, in a male-dominated industry it is refreshing to see such handling of this aspect of inclusion, and a point of pride that this female-led team succeeds in their vision.
Photo credit: Jack Sain