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Canary Girls
The Admiral Nelson, Braunston/Touring
*****

Review by Peter Frost

FOR 45 years Mikron Theatre have been taking their self-made musical shows by narrow boat all around the country and there can be few better ways to spend a balmy summer’s evening than watching the company perform in a canal-side pub garden.

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Their work always has a political message and Canary Girls, a joint production with Unite the union, tells the story of women workers in WWI munitions factories.

There, they discovered capitalist exploitation and trades unions as well as women’s football. Working with poisonous explosive chemicals like TNT gave their skin a yellow tint, turning them into the Canary Girls of the play’s title.

Framed by a minimal set, just four actors bring a multitude of characters and a veritable orchestra of music to the production.

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As the sun sets we’re transported, as if by magic, back to 1915 and the “big house” where housemaid sisters, feisty Rose (Claire Burns) and anxious Lizzie (Stephanie Hackett) decide to hand in their notice and join the war effort.

Lizzie, inspired by reading Sylvia Pankhurst’s Women’s Dreadnought, organises a union among the female munition workers.

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Rose has ambitions to go to France to drive an ambulance — and find her posh soldier sweetheart, the son of the big house (Matt Jopling).

He pretends to have a broken arm and gets invalided home by a sympathetic high-ranking uncle. A quick costume change sees him transformed into an incompetent and greedy factory owner.

He introduces the imperious lady from the big house, beautifully played by James McLean, to tame the women workers.

But even this dyed-in-the-wool aristocrat learns a little of the new role of women in wartime society.

She becomes referee in a morale-building women’s football match. This involves dribbling among the audience, perhaps not the wisest move when performing on the precipitous sides of a canal lock. That typical knockabout humour is what makes Mikron, and this show, wonderfully unique.

Tours nationally until October, details: mikron.org.uk

This review first appeared in the Morning Star Thursday 30 June.

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