The little red card which revealed my seat number beneath the ‘Park Theatre’ logo, led me into the intimate space which was the crux of the £2.5 million project, the ‘brainchild’ of Artistic Director Jez Bond. As I waited in the square and darkly lit room, the floor of the stage gleamed, still glossy, reflecting the light which was aimed at a simple wooden table in the middle of the room, which was the entirety of the set.
I was early to take my seat, and this in addition to A 31 being smack bang in the middle of a row meant that the term ‘intimate’ was given a new meaning. Eccentric London theatre types squeezed past, their scent of musty academia mingling with the theatre’s lingering wafts of fresh paint, the sound of 1920’s jazz harmonised with the excited chatter of my fellow reviewers.
The noise dimmed with the lights as Charity Wakefield took to the stage to give us a lyrical introduction to the story of her character; the doe-eyed young woman Catherine Donohue who was to represent the story of her and her colleagues at the US Radium Corporation. She tells us right at the beginning;
‘This is not a tragedy- though it ends like one.’
Throughout the production, the audience groaned as they watched this happy and healthy wife and mother skip to her wonderful new job in a radium factory, to come back home, quite literally, ‘shining’. There is something poetically tragic about watching Catherine’s husband, Tom, (played by Alec Newman) revere her new found glow as a well paid (but radium-saturated) working wife, as the word tragedy echoed in our ears.
Set in Chicago during the 1920’s, the reality of working class life for those reaching for the ‘American Dream’ is represented through four women who were ‘just doing their job’, painting watch faces with radium powder and being encouraged to lick the paintbrush to help with the precision needed in their work.
The performances given by the star-studded cast were truly moving, and I was left with the impression that the four actresses were not merely acting the part as friends; their obvious chemistry meant they were endearing and believable throughout. Honeysuckle Weeks’ depiction of the feisty cigarette-loving Charlotte and Charity Wakefield’s Catherine were remarkable; both women were utterly convincing and performed with real grit. When Wakefield’s voice broke as she revealed to her colleagues the extent of her illness, you could have heard a pin drop. It simply couldn’t fail to pull on the heartstrings.
Overall, Loveday Ingram’s adaptation of Melanie Marnich’s play is another classic tale of the underdog’s struggle to achieve justice, and despite its saddening theme the overarching tone is one of hope and optimism. The motif of ‘time’ resonates throughout, and aims to leave the audience appreciating the time they have to live, and not to waste it. However if this doesn’t strike you, Weeks’ and Wakefield’s performances will.
If you’re looking for something moving and worthy, These Shining Lives should be at the top of your list to see – although you’ll probably never look at a watch in quite the same way again.