She Town / The Mill Lavvies
Double bill of Dundee-set pieces exploring the city's history from male and female perspectives
It’s hard to think of a play less likely to have had its origins at Cheltenham Ladies College than She Town. It’s about the moment in 1930s Dundee when the mainly female workforce was confronted with falling wages and the prospect of mill closure, while internationally, the forces of left and right were squaring up for battle. As the women coped with the squalor of their homes in the ‘backies’, the appearance of the civil rights activist and singer Paul Robeson at the Caird Hall was about to inspire a generation to fight Franco in Spain.
Yet before it appeared in this revised format, Sharman Macdonald’s play had its premiere in 2010 as Lu Lah, Lu Lah at the exclusive girls’ school. It’s a surprise, not only because of geography and class, but because She Town seems custom-built to draw on the combined talents of a large cast of professionals and community actors who want to reclaim a neglected part of their city’s female-centred history for themselves.
The large numbers involved do hamper the storytelling, however, and only in the second half does it become clear where the heart of the play lies. Although director Jemima Levick does an artful job of evoking the life of the tenements, in a production full of movement, the play puts more emphasis on misery than resilience. It seems less a celebration of community than a eulogy for a defeated generation.
Staged as a companion piece, The Mill Lavvies gives the male perspective on Dundee working life and shirking life as the loom mechanics take their tea breaks and pee breaks one day in the early 1960s. Chris Rattray’s play is mildly amusing rather than hilarious, but the cast led by John Buick give it generous performances, switching effortlessly into the excellent set of songs by Michael Marra that punctuate Andrew Panton’s production.
Dundee Rep, until Sat 29 Sep