The instant the lights come down, we are drawn into the dark world of the jute mills. Through a translucent curtain, the women of Dundee appear to be working at the spinning and the winding, the weaving and the carding. All the time, the mesmeric clackity-clacking of the looms, and the sporadic wailing of the bummer, creates an uncomfortably stark sense of being in a mill. The 1930s context is evoked through the songs and music of the time.
When the curtain actually rises, we are transported to the “backies” of some typical tenement buildings, populated by women, old and young, and girls. For that’s where the stories are. Sharman Macdonald has written a play with several narratives, each of which depicts the raw reality of life for the mill-working women of Dundee and their children. In the same way as jute fibre was woven together to make cloth, She Town is a weave of different stories. If you are expecting to watch a cohesive tale about the women of She Town you might find this confusing, even disappointing; but life is rarely cohesive and this play depicts life in a real community.
Designer Alex Lowde must be suitably proud of this set. The tenements seem all too real and the “backies” as colourless and seemingly devoid of hope as the real thing. What alleviates the otherwise grimly grimy setting is the dialogue and the action of the all-female cast, whose language is as colourful as their actions. You’d have to be very alert to catch all of the on-stage happenings. Queues at the water standpipe (many Dundee tenements had no running water); “bursting” queues at the outside loo; women knitting on the “plettie”, others drinking tea and gossiping, playing cards, or pushing prams of washing and washing boards to the steamie; girls playing “tig” or “boxies” – it was all here, and all happening simultaneously, just as it always did.
What of the stories? There’s a disjointed family of five sisters, the youngest of whom dies of measles whilst one of the others, Isa, (Joanne Cummins), acts as unofficial shop steward for the working women, eloquently rousing them into industrial action when their wages have been cut (again!). There’s the kerfuffle about the appearance of Paul Robeson at the Caird Hall; the choir, chosen to “back” him, have to audition for their places before the snobbish and increasingly inebriated choir-mistress, Arlene Tate (Emily Winter). There’s even the Spanish Civil War: Judith (Angela Hardie) with her father’s gun, enticing Isa to join her in Madrid. And there’s the much maligned mill-owner’s wife, Mrs Blair (Irene Macdougall), whose own daughter actually “plays” with one of those tenement children, ‘revealing’ the open secret that the mills would soon close when mill-owners move to India in the search for greater profit. When the tenement residents in She Town begin to move out, the unique spirit of the place vanishes forever.
There are a couple of excellent vignettes. Molly Vevers plays the role of Maeve particularly well. Maeve makes no secret of the fact that she sells herself for sex – “and I like it”. It’s hardly a big deal, and neither is Mary Mae’s (Lucy Menzies) unmarried teenage pregnancy.
Barbara Rafferty is great as Mrs McReddie, the drinking, gambling, backies-philosopher who declares that “we need a big war”. It’ll get the men off the street corners, and bring work to Dundee. Dundee always needs a war; it means the women will be left to look after themselves – a problem in other towns, maybe, but patently not in She Town.
Jemima Levick’s production has humour and pathos, hope and desolation: women “escaping” their hard life, through the gin-bottle or “the flicks”, or just dirty talk. Kettle-bilers were mentioned but the cast’s token man was the excellent pianist.