Head to Howard Assembly Room for a world premiere of passion, music and new-found liberation…
‘War is hell’, so they say. The effects of World War I, whether physical, psychological or emotional, have been told in many forms over the years. Often, these stories focus on the soldiers, the men and boys who died in the trenches. This winter, Not Such Quiet Girls takes a different approach, exploring the world just behind the front line, and the unknown girls who risked life and limb to save others.
Part of Opera North’s ‘Before War and After’ season to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the end of the Great War, this never-before-seen production blends opera and drama to show you something wholly new. Inspired by Helen Zenna Smith’s novel, ‘Not So Quiet’, it tells the story of four young girls – Mary, Tony, Harry and Pat. Ambulance drivers on the front line of the war, they’re quickly exposed to the full horrors of the conflict. They tend to wounds, dodge mustard gas and avoid bombing runs, all while tackling their own personal demons and internal conflicts, from empowerment to sexuality, class and independence.
Within the play, many of these challenges fall under the same overarching banner – gender. This is an overwhelmingly female production. Every member of the cast and crew, except the Musical Director and the Lighting Director, is a woman. And this collective feminine personification allows an examination of gender that runs deeper than many of its contemporaries. Writer Jessica Walker has created a show that seems, on the surface, a tale of four female friends bonded by horror. But it’s also a powerful lesbian love story, a study of new-found women’s liberation, and it even incorporates elements of dealing with trauma and grief – all in a lightning-quick 90 minutes.
Make no mistake, Not Such Quiet Girls may delve deeper into the personal struggles of the four heroines than the carnage outside, but the threat of war is ever-present. And nowhere is this more evident than from the stunning staging. Stripped back and in the round for an almost oppressive sense of intimacy, the most eye-catching feature is the suspended chaos overhead. A jumble of barbed wire, broken wood and shrapnel that combines the very worst elements of the inhospitable No Man’s Land, it hangs from wires over the length of the stage like a violent sword of Damocles, a consistent reminder of the horrors outside for the girls on stage, and the audience. Always in the mind, and just at the corner of your eye.
The play’s other ever-present is, as you’d expect from an opera, music. Much of Not Such Quiet Girls’ music is made up of old concert-hall songs. Stripped of their misty-eyed nostalgia in the stage’s glare, we can see the rabid jingoism that lured unsuspecting volunteers to the front line. In the show, that’s demonstrated by the arrival of new ambulance girl Mary. Keen to ‘do her bit’, the veneer is soon torn from her eyes by the mud, blood and fleas that form the daily routine of the drivers. Surrounded by death, jolly patriotic songs like ‘Soldier Boy’ and ‘Now You’ve Got Yer Khaki On’ ring increasingly hollow.
Similarly, back home, we catch a glimpse of the parents left behind, worrying and waiting for the all-too-common bad news from the front. Instead of being inspirational, music forces home the fear and sadness in a heart-rending way, as a chorus of female voices sing ‘I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier’, a howl of pain from mothers through the decades, sung with enough fervour to raise the hair on your arms.
You might be thinking you’ll be leaving with a distinct sense of sadness, but Not Such Quiet Girls manages to balance realism with hope. Mary’s new-found knowledge of war’s horrors? Rather than crumble, she embraces her responsibility and freedom, symbolised by the removal of her oppressive corset half-way through the show. The music swells supportively. The time jump at the end of the show back to the present day helps show us that the war does, of course, end. And in its wake, these quiet girls, and millions more, find their voice.
Across that century, women’s rights, independence and sexual liberation all came to pass, admittedly with much work still to do. All of which is tied together by the finale song, ‘I Never Was a Quiet Girl’, written especially for the show. As a message of sexual independence, the refrain of “The girl is gone/She’s history/Here stands the woman/Strong and free” will stay with you long after the show has finished.
Not Such Quiet Girls is at Howard Assembly Room until Saturday 1st December 2018. Book your tickets now…Cover image credit: Justin Slee