We Happy Few – in the footsteps of a feminist icon.

New, old look for the Little Theatre

This was a big week for the Little Theatre in Gateshead. The new extension, restoring the Theatre to it’s original 1920’s style frontage was officially opened by a local Tyne Tees newsreader  on a gorgeous sunny June evening. The theatre facelift was made possible by the generous legacy of a deceased theatre member, and the cutest auditorium in the North East has never looked so smart. Not quite trendy enough for an Arts Council grant the Theatre, which  remained open during WWII is still going strong and remains resolutely in the black with average audiences for each play at well over 80% despite our spiralling recession. Publicity for the theatre is minimal, it operates on word of mouth and by being a real and valued part of the local community. This week I appeared in We Happy Few, a play by Imogen Stubbs based on the real life exploits of the Osiris players, an all women Shakespeare company who travelled throughout Britain into ‘primary schools, village greens and church halls’ performing up to four plays a day for school children and local communities.

Random singing

The players braved the ‘Blackout’, the ‘Blitz’ (first bombs then V1’s and V2’s) with one of the actresses even  dieing of blast injury. Suffering all the privations of war but never deterred they soldiered on until VE-Day. At the outbreak of war the players director Nancy Hewins decided to approach the Ministry of Labour and gain reserved occupation status for a group of 7 women actresses who then toured the length and breadth of Britain performing Shakespeare plays, revues and other British works to thousands of schoolchildren and adults. Keeping spirits up in the days of no television and often no radio.

The Mayor is pissed again

 

Never was there a better illustration of the great British stiff upper lip.
The players toured in an old 1923 Rolls Royce and later by horse and cart when the petrol for the car ran out, sleeping where they could. Wages were small and the players pooled their money.  In order to ‘make ends meet’ they worked as shop assistants, waitresses etc as well as doing over 1500 performances of 55 plays up and down the country charging 5 old pennies a seat and working 7 days a week!
The play is a testament to the fortitude of women in war and the ‘Make Do And Mend’ mentality which got so many through those tough times. It was fun for me to play Hetty whose character was inspired by the leader of the troupe Nancy Hewins and to take on the mantle of her indomitable spirit which turned such a negative situation for people into something a little bit positive. As she says in the play ‘If you want sympathy, you’ll find it in the dictionary between shit and syphillis!’

We couldn’t afford the Travel Lodge!

An extra element to the story was the discovery that the Osiris players actually visited the Little Theatre in June 1944 when they presented six plays in the space of four days including A Tale of Two Cities and Sweeny Todd! The same seven actresses played a total of around 100 characters tween them. This was probably the first professional all women theatre company in the country founded in 1927 long before radical feminism was launched. ‘We Happy Few’ documents a fascinating part of our social history which is rarely in the spotlight. Come on girls show us what you’re made of!

The Flashing Blades

 

Girl Power