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A CurtainUp London Review
These Shining Lives
Brainchild of director Jez Bond and his Executive Director Miranda Bertram, the Park Theatre has been built on a shoe string without public subsidy or lottery fund donations. The main theatre is set up at present on three sides of a square, somewhat like the Donmar configuration with a similar arrangement in the Circle. The walls have inbuilt LED lighting which can change the colour of all the surrounding walls. With a thrust stage, no seat is more than four rows away and Park 200 will be mounting their own productions while Park 90 will be a receiving house for “heavily curated” work. You cannot fail to admire the energy that has gone into this project in just four years to create a space that has many uses and is really close to a tube station.
Loveday Ingram directs These Shining Lives, the story of women in an Illinois factory making luminous watch dials. Working with radium, these factory workers would lick the paint brushes into shape to keep them pointed and sharp, dip them into the radium powder, water and glue before painting the number on the dials. The women were unaware of the dangers of this work and many became very ill with poisoning. What was reprehensible was that the factory owners and supervisors were well aware of the dangerous nature of the work but did not inform the workers, instead telling that radium was used medicinally. As a result of the court case these women brought, there were changes made to American legislation to protect people in the workplace from hazardous work.
Charity Wakefield leads as Catherine Donohue, a young mother who is thrilled to be offered 8 cents a dial for piecework in Chicago in the 1920s. She finds herself working alongside Honeysuckle Weeks, as the acerbic and distancing Charlotte, Nathalie Carrington as Pearl and Melanie Bond as Frances. Catherine's husband Tom (Alec Newman) will be pleased at the extra family income but also will cope with Catherine's sickness as the damage to her health becomes evident. David Calvitto, an American, takes on several roles including the factory supervisor Mr Reed who does not come out of the play glowing with integrity. Later Calvitto plays the attorney, Mr Grossman who takes the case to court and through the six appeals made by the US Radium Corporation, which results in employers being responsible for the safety of their workers. The girls all sadly develop jaw cancer or another carcinoma.
There were points where the direction seemed unaware of the blocking that can take place if someone stands still on the diagonal for a period of time. The audience is unable to see both that actor and the face of the actor they are talking to, but like the Orange Tree and The Finborough, the Park will get that right given time.
The problem with These Shining Lives is that we know where this is going as soon as we shudder when we see the girls licking the paintbrushes and hear the word radium, so there is little room for dramatic surprise. Important as their legal story is, their cause is all very deserving but the journey is theatrically predictable.
Designer Tim Shorthall has simple and flexible design that sees tables reassembled as the factory work bench and a backdrop of projected watch and clock faces to remind us of the glow in the dark watches.
Charity Wakefield is a most appealing actress and perfectly cast in this period and her performance is outstanding. Alec Newman has several small but exceptionally well executed roles, as does David Calvitto, but there are strong and believable performances all round in this very exciting new space.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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