Arletty Theatre’s production, Swan Canaries, is a musical play about the canary girls of World War 1. These were the women who did the dangerous job of filling shells with explosive materials which were then sent to the front. They were nicknamed canary girls because the chemicals turned the skin yellow. This was the least of the risks involved in munitions. Many were killed in explosions in the factories and this play seeks to remember those plucky women.
The play opens with a lively rendition of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ then moves swiftly into a scene where Mary Maguire greets trainees to the munitions factory.
The audience, as the trainees, are introduced to National Shell Factory 6 and given a safety talk. This is all done with humorous camaraderie. As the plot progresses, we learn that Mary Maguire was the Sunday School teacher for the village and has taught Polly, and Polly’s beau, Jack. Beki Mahon as Rose particularly shines but the rest of the cast perform perfectly well.
The humour of the munitions women comes to the fore in the first half. Well-known songs enliven the piece and the audience are encouraged to sing along (with song-sheets thoughtfully placed on seats). The staging is simple: a backdrop with images of munitions is placed centre stage and images are projected onto to it. There are moments of physical theatre which work well including a comic tug-of-war.
The second half is darker. Although these women are ‘earning a wage no fella can drink away’, there are still high costs for this dangerous work.
Swan Canaries covers a time of enormous social change: of women breaking out of the confines of the home and into the workplace, against the backdrop of a devastating war. Yet it manages to do so with a light touch.
(c) Samantha Coughlan October 2015