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The Matchgirls

8 July 2018

Strike A Light!

The Matchgirls

by Bill Owen, music by Tony Russell

Teddington Theatre Club, Hampton Hill Theatre until 13th July

Review by Andrew Lawston

A Made in Dagenham for the 19th Century, Bill Owen’s musical The Matchgirls dramatises the 1888 strike at London’s Bryant & May match factory. Throughout this two hour show, Teddington Theatre Company juggle upbeat musical numbers with grim working conditions, grinding poverty, and committee meetings. A largely female cast of “cockney sparrows” give a confident and powerful performance that rattles along at a furious pace.

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Following an overture illustrated by an impressive filmed insert, the curtain rises to reveal Fiona Auty’s set consisting mostly of stark scaffolding against a plain backdrop, rendered doubly ominous by a creeping cloud of dry ice. This evocative design keeps the action moving smoothly from scene to scene, with minimal props brought on to denote scenes set away from the factory and “Hope Court”. The vivid costumes from Mags Wrightson, Lesley Alexander, and Margaret Boulton means the Matchgirls themselves provide welcome splashes of colour against their grim backdrop.

The opening song sums up the show’s tone. “Phosphorous” is a jaunty chorus number about Phossy Jaw, a disfiguring occupational hazard in the matchstick industry in the 19th Century. There’s a certain black comedy implicit in the material, which thankfully the cast do not play for laughs.

From initial confrontations with Dave Dadswell’s odious Foreman Mynel, Kate quickly emerges as the de facto leader of the Matchgirls, and Emma Hosier gives a spirited performance throughout a show that requires a huge musical and emotional range from her.

Grumbling over working conditions, fines, and stoppages in the match factory are brought to a head by news that a statue of Gladstone is to be unveiled – and paid for by further deductions from the girls’ meagre wages – Kate undergoes a bewilderingly rapid political education under the tutelage of Annie Besant (an impassioned performance from Sue Reoch).

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The ambivalent tone with which Besant is addressed as “Dear Lady” by all the girls throughout the show reflects their suspicions of a middle-class woman acting as a “do-gooder” with little consideration of the probable consequences for the girls’ livelihoods. Interestingly, the girls have a point, as they go without food for the first week of their strike, only to be told blithely by Besant that a strike fund is “coming soon”. It is a shame that the script does not really develop this conflict, which instead focuses on the strike breakers and an emerging love triangle.

While Kate is mentored by Besant, she is also supported by the other Matchgirls, particularly Cath Bryant’s confident Polly, and by Dave Shortland’s cheerful and energetic pigeon-obsessed dock worker, Joe. Conversely, Caroline Steer is electric as Jessie, the group’s troublemaker in a spectacularly scarlet frock. Jessie’s twin interests in mob violence and flirting drive much of the conflict in Act Two.

Rounding out the group, Sandra Mortimer clearly has a wonderful time playing the incorrigible old lush Old Min, while Danielle Thompson’s Winnie runs a whole gamut of emotions throughout the play. Opposite the diverse and fun Matchgirls, the dockers come across as a largely interchangeable group of men, mostly interested in pigeons and “pints at the Anchor”. Joe’s two docker friends, Ben Legard’s Perce, and Bill Compton’s Bert, don’t get a great deal of time to shine individually, but add further energy to the big songs.

 

Bill Owen’s script is somewhat uneven and disjointed in places, and the director seems to have addressed this by paring down the spoken dialogue in favour of the musical numbers. This results in a breakneck pace to the play, and the decision to include the climactic meeting between Kate, Besant and a shareholder as a mimed piece during a chorus number also adds to the sense of urgency.

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If there is one element that risks undermining the production’s relentless pace, it is probably the two scenes featuring George Bernard Shaw. Ben Hansell does a fine job of portraying the firebrand, but it has to be said that the character does little to drive forward the story beyond providing the audience with a fun historical cameo.

While the show’s political and social material is gripping, it tends to be the more upbeat songs that truly shine, from the early “’Atful of ‘ope” led by Zoe Arden’s cheeky Mrs Purkiss, to “La di dah”, and even “Amendment to a motion” – where setting committee protocol to music results in one of the show’s most unlikely but oddly entertaining numbers. Choreographer Lucinda Hennessy and Musical Director Hannah-May Lucas ensure that the songs and movement are constantly fresh and interesting, making the most of the multi-level set and their small but very hard-working band. On the well-attended opening night, many toes were tapping throughout the audience whenever the band struck up.

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The Matchgirls is not performed often, but this bold production from Marc Batten and Teddington Theatre Club papers over some of the script’s weaknesses, and more than demonstrates that the show deserves to be much more well known.

Andrew Lawston
July 2018

Photography by JoJo Leppink (Handwritten Photography)

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From → Musicals, Reviews

One Comment
  1. Maggie Gates permalink

    One of the most enjoyable evenings I have had for ages .The opening night of the Matchgirls was amazing fun,the cast and the acting was superb funny and dynamic . The costumes were spot on, the set up, the decor and the director’s vision of the play was well delivered with some amazing and interesting words and songs.I loved the quiet words of Waiting waiting waiting …which takes you into the present moment of any challenges in life but we must never give up …just like the women in 1888. Good luck and thank you 🙏〽️

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