Women's War Work: Patriotism without a Sneer Served Up with Deep Humanity

Article excerpt

We Happy Few

Gielgud Theatre, London W1

Congratulations to Imogen Stubbs who in her debut as a writer has unearthed the wonderful story of Nancy Hewins and the Osiris repertory company. Seven women through all the years of the Second World War crisscrossed Britain, sleeping on floors, performing in schools and pubs, because they believed it was their patriotic duty to nourish the nation's spiritually starved souls with Shakespeare.

Stubbs tells us that she is "yearning for a lost age". The generation that is now in its forties and fifties grew up when talk of the war still hung constantly in the air. We felt that mixture of relief and regret that we were born too late, and that now translates into a sense of obligation to remember and celebrate the courage of those days.

In fact Stubbs is pushing at an open door. She may be right to lament that for some young people history is superfluous, but in books, films and documentaries not much sells like the Second World War. Few can resist evocations of our finest hour. As the Union Flag unfurls in her play, words from Winston Churchill and the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon blend, inviting us to celebrate this sceptred isle, this blessed plot, this realm, this England. It can only help that Shakespeare's greatest hits supply Stubbs with a high percentage of her script. The story of seven women living cheek by jowl, donning beards to play the male leads, coping splendidly through all adversity, is good box office, too. Whatever you call the stage equivalent of a chick-flick, this is it. What is more, Stubbs has chosen a format that has often succeeded before: a show about actors putting on a show.

It is a winning combination, but Stubbs does not entirely bring it to success. The problem does not lie with the cast. Juliet Stevenson gives a vigorous performance as the leader of the troupe, striding about barking orders in her father's coat, trying to disguise how her responsibilities burden her and her tormented anxiety for her son at war. Marcia Warren is her adorable number two, a woman whose superficial prissiness cannot disguise deep humanity and courage. When she comes to tell her life story, she has the audience enthralled. Kate O'Mara makes the most of a rather two-dimensional fallen starlet who has become a whisky-sodden old cow, venting her bitterness against her pretty daughter, played by Emma Darwall-Smith. Patsy Palmer is meltingly sweet as the cockney tomboy for whom the war, and the chance to be in the theatre, are the best things that ever happened. Her first attempt at being Henry V, instilling courage in his outnumbered men, provides the most moving moment of the play. …