When We Were Women - At The Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond

Revival of a family saga doesn't tell us much that's new about the need for women's equality, says Liz Vercoe

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Isla (Abigail Lawrie) & her father Alec (Steve Nicolson)

When We Were Women runs until 3 October; 2 hours 20 minutes. For tickets (numbered seats are now offered), concessions and under-30s reduced prices

Orange Tree Theatre

Box Office: 020 8940 3633

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Is there really any danger that West London theatregoers don't know that until the middle of the 20th century, and the arrival of reliable contraception, men held most of the cards in relationships? Or not seen any number of tremendous plays and films on the subject in the intervening years?

Which makes this revival of Sharman Macdonald's 1988 play, directed by Eleanor Rhode, a bit of a puzzle, except perhaps for dedicated followers of Macdonald whose fame came with her first play When I was a Girl, I used to Scream and Shout. It really doesn't seem to add much to current debate.

The play initially introduces us to Isla (Abigail Lawrie), her mother Maggie (Lorraine Pilkington) and father Alec (Steve Nicolson) in war-torn Glasgow. The cast have impeccable Scots accents and there are plenty of "wains" and "ma wee hens" and "cleaving". But maybe not enough "havering"– but in the English sense of indecisive hesitancy rather than Scottish for foolish talk – Isla is pregnant and Maggie scrapes by with the help of a bit of black-market buying. Alec likes a dram a bit too much for his or anyone else's good but, on balance, his daughter says, he's a "nice drunk". Which means he's only thumped his wife once in their 27-year marriage.

What's the real crime, according to the playwright, is that he's an old fashioned man. He might have got his wife pregnant before they married but that's not going to happen to his daughter. Oh no, she's a good girl and once married she'll keep a nice home with a hot dinner ready and a warm welcome in bed for her husband so that he doesn't stray too much.

Needless to say, Isla takes up with a wrong'un. Naval officer Mackenzie (Mark Edel-Hunt) seems positively deranged at times with his ranting and pleading with God. Completing the cast is a spectral mystery woman (Sarah-Jayne Butler)see photo below.

Back in 1988 writers were also playing around with structure, which means here that the play partly goes backwards when it hasn't leapt forward. And so that this technique doesn't give the end away before the beginning of what is quite a slim plot, the cast have to repeat what they've already said, quite a lot. At one point it was tempting to scream at Maggie, "She's got it, you're not going to help!".

To be fair, though, Maggie does get to utter possibly the only moving line of the play when she exhaustedly pleads, "There's no room inside me to take on another thing." Now that's something with which most 21st century audiences struggling to maintain their place on the hamster wheel of life will still identify.

Liz Vercoe
Images: Ben Broomfield

September 10, 2015