Nod to all-women stage play in humorous homage to Shakespeare
A play filled with comedy, We Happy Few follows the trials and tribulations of a semi-amateur all-women theatre troupe as they set off on the eve of the Second World War to perform Shakespeare to the masses.
It helps if you know your Shakespeare - We Happy Few being a quote from Henry V - and Shakespeare's works are referenced throughout the play. Characters act parts of Macbeth and other lines from the Bard's plays.
We Happy Few is based on a real-life all-women theatre company, The Osiris Players, founded by Nancy Hewins in 1927, that brought the works of Shakespeare to audiences who had no access to theatre either due to their geographic location in remote villages or their social background.
The seven women were totally self-sufficient, carrying out the acting roles, being the stage crew, cooking, making costumes, booking places to perform, and travelling about in two donated Rolls-Royces.
The stage setting, with costumes and props really gives a sense of the theatre in the 1940s, and the troupe of women relentlessly touring the length and breadth of Britain on a shoestring, surviving on rations, sleeping on the floor of the school halls where they perform.
One character, Joseph – one of only two male performers on stage – is a Jewish refugee fleeing Germany, who has learned English through Shakespeare plays, and as a result speaks in a very gallant and old-fashioned way, adding to his charm.
No ordinary band of sisters
This is no ordinary band of actors, and lead character Hetti Oak is played effortlessly by June Lowery (there are times when you wonder if she is acting), with a sharp wit.
Other characters include Charlie - a tom boy, happy to tinker with the Rolls-Royce cars the ladies use to transport themselves and all their props and costumes - and Ivy, an American maid working in London, who has a beautiful voice but doesn’t really “get” Shakespeare.
Hetti’s long-time friend, Flora, is forgetful about the details in life while Jocelyn is an eccentric old lady with a walking stick who sings off key. Rosalind is the timid daughter of a professional actress, and gin-swigging, chain-smoking diva, Helen Irving, is brought to life brilliantly by Helena O’Hare, with sarcastic comic lines that steal the show, and a great clipped accent reminiscent of 1940s screen stars.
The performances are exceptional, given the actors have other day jobs - a nod to the original actors who were not professionally trained.
Based on a true story
The original group of actors performed in village halls, schools and munition workers’ canteens, sleeping where they could, and working where possible to raise extra money. During the war, they staged 1,563 performances of 33 plays - 16 by Shakespeare.
They all had to play several characters on stage and know the lines to various plays at the same time. It was partly the rigours of touring that led to many of the original troupe members leaving, although The Osiris Players remained active until 1963.
The backdrop of war
The war does impose on the story. Hetti, strong-willed and often bad-tempered, softens in the vignettes when she writes to someone fighting in France.
A bomb causes a tragedy, and the brutal secrets of the company’s caste are revealed little by little.
Playwright Imogen Stubbs adds more topical elements of discrimination, motherhood, what it is to be a woman, love, sexual orientation and much more, so this is not a so-called jolly hockey sticks for the war effort, but rather a modern take on the real lives of women in the war years.
An a capella version of Carol of the Bells gives the play a festive feel. Director Tony Kingston incorporates several war time songs, including Every time we say goodbye and the Artemis Players Anthem (especially written for the performance by Catriona Gillham), to add to the 40s atmosphere.
A good mix of clever humour and word play, the serious and the silly trials of life on the stage and on the road, set against the backdrop of war, and honouring the words of Shakespeare. This play and performance packs a lot into one night.
Performances and tickets
You can catch performances of We Happy Few Thursday to Saturday night, 2-4 December, at 19.30 and a Saturday matinee at 14.30 at the Salle Robert Krieps at the Neimenster Cultural Centre in the Grund. Tickets are available here.