“I have absolutely every intention of doing my bit”
The Firewatchers, a new play by young playwright Laura Stevens, offers a neat counterpoint to the jingoistic male-dominated Three Days in May, by presenting an altogether different experience of the Second World War, from the perspective of two very different women stationed for the night on an East London factory rooftop in 1942. Eastender Jean works in a munitions factory whilst Catharine is a wealthy society wife but they find themselves sharing a long night shift as firewatchers, on the alert for fires started by German incendiary devices.
But though the two women come to realise they might have more in common than they realise, Stevens does not make the mistake of drawing too close a parallel. Wartime saw great change beginning to ripple through society in terms of both class and gender divides but it was by no means instant. What Stevens adroitly draws our attention to, by cleverly placing this well after the Blitz had nominally finished, is just how differently the impact of war played out on women of different class as we find out how each woman has come to end up on this rooftop.
Directed by Katie Lewis, Abigail Thaw makes a strong impact as the cocktail-swigging Catharine, her cut-glass vowels, heels and designer outfit eminently unsuitable for work but presenting a facade of never-say-die spirit (accompanied by a bottle of gin in her handbag) and rather glad to be out of her empty house. This is contrasted by the wearied Jean – Michelle Tate bringing a raw spikiness – doing her bit despite having worked all day in the factory and completely bemused by her new companion. There are some lovely moments as the ‘novelty value’ of women doing men’s work is discussed from their differing viewpoints as is the new experience of wearing trousers, the chitchat revealing interesting snippets of their lives but also providing small flashpoints as the social chasm between them means they often rub each other up the wrong way, especially with the preconceptions they carry – in some cases fully justified.
Stevens also casts a light on the grim realities of living through a war. Jean’s house suffered bomb damage months ago but they’re still making do with a tarpaulin pulled over the gap in their front wall; the sense of regular life being completely on hold as they think about their menfolk and the social lives they would otherwise be living, Catharine’s brave face only slipping when she’s alone despite craving companionship. It also looks at the fears of people that victory was by no means a foregone conclusion and the power of contrasting propaganda messages depending on the desperation of their circumstances.
I suspect Laura Stevens may just be a playwright to watch for the future, I enjoyed her second play And the little one said… at the Cock Tavern earlier this year and this makes an accomplished follow-up that avoids predictability. There’s a little contrivance in the way that prejudice is used to deliver a dramatic climax as an air raid finally hits but the way that the sharp disparity between the women is maintained throughout the show is to Stevens’ credit as she delivers a brutally honest portrait of living through the Second World War.