Brighton Fringe 2023
Four women, one small boat and a whole new way of being comes vividly to life in this smart and touching musical journey along the canals of 1940’s England.
In 1941 Molly Traill went to the Ministry of War Transport to suggest that women be recruited to run the boats transporting vital supplies through England’s waterways. A training scheme was launched and about 48 women, from all backgrounds, signed up for this new way of life. Nicknamed Idle Women after the Inland Waterways initials on their badges, they worked the heavily-loaded diesel narrow-boats delivering steel and coal between London and Birmingham.
Their story is the inspiration for a musical journey as warm as buttered toast. And what a treat that would be; breakfast here is porridge ‘I like how you’ve put this almost into slices!’ as experienced hands Edna (Emma Baars), with her RP voice and love of classical music and Ginny (Elizabeth Kroon) whose beau is in the airforce, show the new recruits how to manoeuvre through locks and narrow canals, heaving ropes, getting to know each other in the confined space of their new home. Homely Meg (Maple Preston-Ellis), with her soft hands and curled hair is attracted to feisty young Ruth (Catriona Judt) as they all adapt to life on ‘the cut’ and the unexpected ways in which this new life effects them, physically and emotionally.
The dialogue zings with humour and clever observation, revealing character traits through conversation in well-pitched performances from all the actors. Songs drive the narrative and range across musical styles, backed on ukulele, guitar, tin whistle, bodhrán and more by Phil Jones and Nicola Bloom. Ruth’s solo, longing for a freedom to love who she wants where “the only peering eyes are the stars playing jazz in the skies” has the decadence and swing of classic Jacques Brel.
I can’t recall seeing a show so successfully co-written, directed and produced that it chimes with one voice. The production felt totally at home on the atmospheric Barge Varda, with minimal staging and an intimate connection with the audience. It will be interesting to see how the piece adapts to bigger venues in an expanded form later in year. The scenes and songs that have delighted a sold-out audience at Brighton Fringe suggest Idle Women has definitely found its sea legs. The final song captured the strength, solidarity, purpose and friendship between the crew. I left singing the refrain along the towpath ‘Idle women, they said, who’ve never hauled coal. Said the men, who never hauled coal”; perhaps the sign of a hit musical in the making.