This play was being performed for the first time ever at the Highbury Theatre. A story that will probably be more familiar to many in the guise of the 1998 film “Land Girls” starring Rachel Weiss, and the 1994 novel of the same name by Angela Huth. Those that had worked as Land Girls baulked at the way that both works portrayed them. “Lilies on the Land” is the result of first hand reminiscences from those who did work the fields, creating a drama of indisputable authenticity. It was first performed in 2010.
The role of the Land Girls, digging for victory, is a lesser publicised part of the British war effort. The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was established in World War One, but was re-founded shortly before the outbreak of World War Two, in June 1939, to provide extra labour.
Women were initially asked to volunteer for the WLA. However, in December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act, which allowed the conscription of women into the armed forces, or for vital war work. At first only single women between 20 and 30, and widows without children, were called up, but later the age limit was expanded to include women between 19 and 43. Women could choose whether to enter the armed forces or work in farming or industry. By 1943, more than 80,000 women were working in the Land Army. It is an irony of the Second World War that the National Service Act of December 1941, which extended conscription to women, had no equivalent in Germany.
Director Ian Appleby had two options in casting. The principal cast is of four women, but there are almost a dozen minor characters. Would he go small, or large? He opted to go small, asking the women to assume multiple characters as the story unfolded, creating a demanding load for the actresses.
A simple, single, set suffices for the entire evening, dressed with vintage posters, and featuring a video screen playing contemporary news footage and photographs. The audio plays an important part in creating atmosphere, and where there is no audio, the cast fill in with some very impressive animal noise impersonations. The table proves to be exceptionally versatile, becoming in turns a bath and a toboggan, as well as a table.
The cast of four, Margie (Linzi Doyle), Peggy (Sharon Clayton), Poppy (Bhupinder Brown) and Vera (Emma Woodcock) approach their task with effervescent enthusiasm. Another feature of their demanding roles are a number of wartime songs, which they have to sing largely unaccompanied, a task which they tackle with verve and pleasingly good voices. At one point they also have to dance, dragging an audience member to his feet to make up for the lack of men on stage, a nice touch. Whatever “Britishness” is, they display it in spades.
Linzi Doyle is a joy as a bubbly earthy Margie. Sharon Clayton is a reflective Maggie at her best when recounting the tale of tearing her best and only dress while climbing a six foot gate. Bhupinder Brown is superb as the posh girl in unfamiliar and alien surroundings. Emma Woodcock plays Vera with maturity and charm. None try to steal the limelight during their respective monologues, a real team effort.
The play itself is a narrative collection of monologues. Each woman tells her story as the four seasons, and war, unfolds. This combines the humour of mice racing, the trials and tribulations of field toilets, and the dangers of unwanted male attention and exploitation as they struggle in their task a long way from home. The first half is quite lengthy at around eighty minutes, the second half, a much sharper forty- five minutes. A beautiful poem appears to wrap things up before a rousing sing along “Jerusalem” provides a crowd pleasing finale.
Ian Appleby has done a fine job bringing this production to the stage. The audience was quite old, not surprising given the subject matter, but the themes transcend generations, and theatre goers of all ages will enjoy this show.
“Lilies on the Land” runs until Saturday 2nd July.