Edinburgh Fringe 2018
This new musical, premiering at The Fringe, is based on the experiences of Muriel Thompson (1875-1939) – a remarkable woman who consistently broke new ground. The performance has been created using a range of original documents, including Muriel’s personal wartime dairies, newspaper articles and other archival items. This is the company’s seventh year at The Fringe.
Take a true, little-told story about a great subject. Add in considered detail, an engaging cast, a creative use of space and a varied style of storytelling. You then have all the elements for a highly informative, entertaining and memorable show – which is precisely what we were treated to this evening!
The show tells the story of Muriel Thompson: motor-racing champion, suffragette, ambulance driver and decorated war veteran. A cast of four communicate her war years – incorporating key scenes and personal reflections, interspersed with occasional songs. The detailed new writing draws from the rich canvas of her extraordinary life – highlighting, most effectively, the humour, sorrow, political battles, propaganda, challenges, bravery, grief and comradeship evident within her story.
This clever, well-paced new writing, enabled the creation of a performance that succeeded in the difficult task of portraying elements of both pathos and comedy, sometimes within the same scenes. The acting was of a very high standard, conveying a wide range of emotions. The bond between the three women colleagues, when in action, was particularly well developed. Occasional comedic elements were very well directed and the timing precisely executed – to the delight of tonight’s audience.
Although this was billed as a musical, it is possibly more accurately described as “a play with songs”. The music was predominantly used as a method to vary the pace and the style of the performance – to great effect. The majority of the songs were solos, with an occasional unison number and a few brief harmonies. The words were generally well-constructed and diction consistently faultless. The lyrics to a song about transporting injured soldiers by train were especially well crafted. Although the melodies were not particularly memorable, and the lyrics didn’t generally progress the story along, the addition of music was very successful in adding a depth and variety to the piece. Simple accompaniment, on what appeared to be an upright piano, accorded with the era and added to the period atmosphere. For a couple of songs guitar accompaniment was used. Although well played, this seemed to break the mood, with the piano feeling far more appropriate to the setting.
In the early stages of this performance the audience were presented with a lot of facts – dates, names, times, places – requiring significant concentration. This was challenging, as it wasn’t clear what level of detail we were being expected to remember. The difficulty was further compounded by the fact that we were travelling between different settings and bouncing back and forth on the time line. However, the performance really took off when we were able to settle down, remain orientated in time and place, become familiar with character names, and follow the story sequentially. It took some time to get there but, when we did, the narrative really began to flow.
As the show progressed, the technique of Muriel herself providing regular ongoing commentary, directly to the audience, was used to good effect. In the early stages, however, this approach took a little time to recognise and the audience may have been assisted had this been signalled more effectively.
The available space was utilised most creatively – helping to keep the story moving and the action varied. Generally this was effective, though there were a couple of times (when standing on props) when the actors were obstructed by the lights and occasionally (when seated) there were difficulties with sight-lines for some.
As mentioned earlier, one of the reasons it took a while to get into the flow of the story was that the audience were having to frequently re-orientate in time and place. The need for the changes was because of a scenario we were asked to immerse ourselves in when entering the theatre. While the technique used to create this scenario initially felt creative, exciting, engaging and clever, the use of this approach (and its subsequent handling) may benefit from further consideration. The audience were asked to return to the same scenario at varying points within the performance, disrupting the smooth flow of the story and, particularly in the early stages, leading to the potential for confusion as to who was who and where we were on the time-line. Returning to the scenario at the close of the performance, though smoothly executed, also constrained the options available with which to end the show. For me, the ending felt a little weak and inadequate to close such a tremendous story. The value and challenges resulting from the use of the particular opening scenario may benefit from further assessment.
In summary this is an interesting, engaging production telling the fascinating story of a remarkable woman. Written with sensitivity and humour, this is delivered by a talented cast. This has the potential to be an excellent show. In its current format the story took a little time to take off, though when it did we were treated to a captivating performance. A gallant attempt to portray a gallant life!