Colin Hambrook, Chief Editor at Disability Arts Online, came to see The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence on 23 September 2015 at the Pleasance Theatre, London. This is what he said:
Vital Xposure sets out to produce cutting edge theatre that celebrates hidden voices with extraordinary stories to tell. In doing so ‘The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence’ follows on from the companies’ 2011-2013 production ‘The Knitting Circle’, which evolved out of research into the testimonies of women locked away in long-stay institutions.
Writer Julie McNamara interviewed a former nurse who had worked in Friern Barnet (known until 1937 as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum) who told her “don’t forget Dorothy Lawrence. She was our most famous patient.”
The play opens with Dorothy Lawrence (Penelope Freeman), reminiscing with her nurse Mae (Suni La) on the shoddy reportage of the story of suffragette Emily Davison who stepped in front of King George V’s horse in June 1913. She sets the tone with her defiance: “A woman died and all that mattered to them was that their horse had won the race”.
Solidly staged with Libby Watson’s economic yet powerfully evocative set design, the story of journalist Dorothy Lawrence is gently paced moving from her time as an older woman in the asylum and her time as the ‘only English woman soldier’ on the front line in Albert, the Somme in 1915.
Freeman portrays young and old Dorothy with conviction and a depth. Some of the most touching scenes are between her and her nurse. Here again Suni La’s performance as Mae connects as the nurse gently encourages Dorothy to have her war diaries published, finally.
As the story unfolds, scenes move alternately between the asylum and the front line. With incredible bravery Lawrence arrives on bicycle, breaching security, posing as a soldier, determined to report the true story of life in the trenches to the press back home. Aided by some of her comrades she was “a good soldier; the best” until her secret is divulged by the sergeant with desperate and exacting consequences.
Caglar Kimyoncu’s exquisite visuals project BSL narrators Matthew Gurney and Becky Allen in period dress, relayed like a Pathe newsreel onto the set. While deaf members of the audience get a précis of the ensuing storyline we hear popular songs like Harry Marlow’s ‘When Tommy Comes Marching Home’ much to the delight of some more elderly ‘sing-along’ members of the audience.
Alongside Dorothy we see soldiers McComack (Gareth Turkington) and Shura (Simon Balcon) endure the monotony and danger of life in the trenches, with time whiled away in playing cards or indulging in the War Office sanctified brothel service run by Monique (Suni La), Madame of the Red Lanes.
There is a broad gap of over forty years between the young idealistic woman who decided she would be a soldier and the tired elderly person who has been ‘disappeared’ for 39 years, for daring to tell her story. Dorothy is portrayed with a glint in her eye that belies the fact that she knows her story is too good not to out one day. We see a woman continuing to hold her own, despite being censored by the authorities – imagined as a ‘bandit queen in a village of outlaws’, sharing illicit poteen and reliving her memories as Sapper Dennis Smith.
Many women were sent to asylums just for having stepped outside the pale of social acceptability, or who as in Dorothy’s case were deemed undesirable by those in power. The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence begs the question ‘what’s changed in the last hundred years’ when individuals step out of line to challenge the establishment?
At the very least this performance will leave you itching to find out more about Sapper Dorothy: the Only English Woman Soldier of the First World War.
Please click on this ink to read this review on Disability Arts Online: www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/vital-exposure-the-disappearance-of-dorothy-lawrence
Please click on this link to read an interview with Julie McNamara talking about her profound experiences of unearthing untold stories of patients and staff from long-stay institutions: www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/julie-mcnamara-knitting-circle-interview
Please click on this link to read an interview with writer Julie McNamara and director Paulette Randall on thepublicreviews.com www.thepublicreviews.com/interview-julie-mcnamara-and-paulette-randall/
This short, gripping, engrossing play is all about trying to speak out and being silenced.
by Adrian Pulle
Reviewer’s Rating 4.0 (four stars)
We come in to the theatre to the sounds of old recordings of popular songs such as ‘Daisy Bell’ and ‘”Oh! It’s a Lovely War’ (which introduces the WW1 background and nods to the hard-hitting Joan Littlewood musical which took its title from that tune), then immediately switch to a later setting as the play opens, Patsy Cline’s accompanying ‘Sweet Dreams’ emphasizing the time shift.
Dorothy Lawrence (Penelope Freeman) is a long term resident of Colney Hatch Lunatic asylum, cared for by nurse May (Suni La), with whom she has a close, bantering relationship. Prompted by the death of a suffragette, Dorothy starts to reminisce about her own role in the movement as a journalist when, disguised as a man, she managed to become a soldier on the Western Front in order to report back on the suffering undergone in the trenches first-hand.
Penelope Freeman doubles-up as the younger Dorothy as the memory play unfolds, while fellow comrades-in-arms (Shura, played by Simon Balcon, and McCormack, played by Gareth Turkington) remain oblivious to Dorothy’s true identity. Suni La also appears in the earlier period as brothel madam Monique, who serves as a key confidante for the troops in lighter moments, and also verbalises a different form of oppression – the ongoing exploitation of countless young women to service the men – which war creates. An early scene in which the older Dorothy addresses May as ‘Monique’ highlights the fact that this action is taking place via reminiscences, modern events and situations intercutting with the war details, but also causing us to question whether or not these types of events and attitudes are really as ‘in the past’ as they seem
Though the play is only just over an hour long, and thus some of the scenes need to be broadly representative and fast-paced to push the action along, the interplay of the performers never feels rushed or forced. And while there is a clear message from Julie McNamara and the Vital Xposure team regarding oppression and injustice, this is not just polemic, the key strength of the writing and acting being the relationships which develop between the characters, the quieter moments amid the carnage. Though the soldiers and Monique could have been played as ‘types’, they are real people, with their own flaws as well as strengths, and this most comes across in their verbal sparring and joking together, and through the frequent bursts of singing, which spoke of the hurt and loss suffered by so many, the music giving them voice. There is a deeper pain and melancholy here amidst even the most ribald of tales.
Dorothy eventually falls foul of the military authorities, which leads to her permanent hospitalization back in Britain. And though ultimately her story is a sad and desperate one, causing feelings of anger at her fate, and debate as to how far we have moved forward since, there is hope at the play’s end that her memory will live on, as it continues to do through this impressive and entertaining work, which is full of heart, and wonderfully realized.
First published by playstosee.com on 23 September 2015