REVIEW: Lilies on the Land at The Bear Pit Theatre

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Farmer Shirley Allwork, rear, tends the cows: l-r, Anne O’Neil, Stephanie Jepson, Jane Lees, Tracy Humphreys and Olivia Jane Parker; with Land Girl Georgie Wood, front.

Lilies on the Land, The Bear Pit Theatre Company, 21st April

While the sun shone on the joyous Birthday Celebrations last Saturday I joined a packed house in the atmospheric gloom of The Bear Pit Theatre, where there was also much joy but tears aplenty too.

As we celebrate 402 years since the birth of Shakespeare, another important date is being remembered: it is 100 years since (some) women were given the right to vote.

There is a bittersweet irony involved in the history of the enfranchisement of women in that it was hugely enabled by the opportunities and independence afforded them during the world wars, as Lilies on the Land, this incredibly powerful account of The Women’s Land Army, testifies.

Created in 2010 by theatre company The Lions Part — a group of professional actors who met while with the Original Shakespeare Company — Lilies on the Land is based on 150 letters and interviews with original ‘Land Girls’. Along with songs from the period, the play charts the personal journeys of a group of women who join the Women’s Land Army — determined to work endless backbreaking hours on farms across the country in a bid to do their best for the War Effort. It’s worth noting that these women are largely forgotten heroines, and were only awarded a medal for their sacrifice and services in 2008.

Directed by Lindsey Allwork, Lilies on the Land conjures the lives and personalities of the Land Army women with incredible poignancy and a barrel load of nostalgia.

The small stage is used to mesmeric effect as the seven actresses play many composite parts, weaving wonderfully evocative anecdotal tales, brilliantly choreographed vignettes (see them as cud-chomping cows in the main photo here) with snatches of wartime hits sang a capella. This is no worthy, preachy history lesson but a wonderfully human tale that isn’t afraid to address the harsh realities of the women’s lives and plumb emotional depths while offering rich and often hilarious entertainment.

The authenticity of the voices of the Land Girls and their experiences shine through as we hear how they coped on meager rations, shoveled ‘muck’, drove tractors, enjoyed dalliances with American GIs, found camaraderie in each other, but also as they faced loneliness and even sexual abuse.

Each of the seven actresses perfectly channeled the indomitable spirit of the Land Girls and brought talent, warmth and humour to their roles while working in perfect unison together — stars one and all.

Offstage there were stars in the audience too: three former Land Girls, two of whom were celebrating their 93rd birthday that very day. As the cast and audience joined in on a closing version of Vera Lynn’s epic wartime weepie, We’ll Meet Again, followed by Happy Birthday, there was not a dry eye in the house.