Brighton Fringe 2019
A story of women and wash-day, perfectly placed in a laundry field alive with history.
Sam Chittenden’s ambitious play interweaves the stories of seven women across seven generations in celebration of sisterhood, feminism and suffrage. The setting, a lush and fragrant garden tucked behind houses on Roundhill, was once a drying field for the Mayo Laundry. A pre-show wander reveals name tags of notable women on trees, a typewriter and cup left on a step, twists of linen on the cockerel’s cage. The landscape is rich with promise, evocatively designed by Delphine du Barry. The audience is gathered in a leafy nook with a slightly raised paved patio so we can all just about see the performers ‘on stage’ as they start the show with a song. Were introduced to the narrative device by the youngest of the troupe Tasha; she’s found notes, cuttings and images in the old house which might help her trace her mother’s story and which unfolds into characterisations by the cast.
In the laundry are Millicent and Dot (strong performances from Sharon Drain and Jenny Rowe respectively) telling of small pox, raw hands, the death of children, the remoteness of their men. Out in the world are young suffragette Meg (an impassioned Rebecca Jones) rallying us to vote, and Ruby who’s struggling with addiction and a violent boyfriend in 1970’s Britain. Alongside Tasha is Juliet, menopausal, previously abused but grounded now. Paired like socks in the linen basket, they swap plot lines that support each other’s life experience, showing how little has changed across the centuries. It’s Abi McLoughlin as Dr Helen Boyle who centres the play most firmly and whose story has greatest impact. A campaigner for female mental health provision, she opened a health centre with her colleague and lover Mabel Jones, determined to help women in distress, particularly the poor. “Those women in small houses in Hanover; asylum patients in the making.”
The narrative loops through the generations with recurring themes of hardship, male dominance and struggle. As we’re moved around the garden, through flapping sheets, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of the story. Songs on uke, fiddle and squeezebox drive the energy on, with the refrain “My mother, my daughter, my sister, my friend” opening the closing the show.
It’s easy to see where Sam Chittenden’s affections lie and Clean is an unmitigated yell for old-school feminism. Some editing would tighten the plot-lines and exploit the most theatrical scene where the height of the space is used to its advantage. But right now, when only 40% of people in the South East voted in the Euro elections, it’s a timely reminder of what we owe to Brighton’s earlier feminist campaigners and suffragettes.