This swish new Finsbury Park theatre starts its first season not so much with a bang as a fairly literal whimper – Melanie Marnich’s ‘These Shining Lives’ is a classy historical weepie that’ll have even the most hardened sociopath blubbing for the last half hour or so.
Directed by the versatile Loveday Ingram, this UK premiere is based on the true and entirely horrifying tale of the ‘Radium Girls’. In the 1920s, these factory floor female employees of the Chicago-based US Radium Corporation were hired to paint luminous numbers onto clock and watch dials. They were told the radium-based paint was completely harmless, and even encouraged to suck the tips of their paintbrushes to points to speed up their work. Inevitably, ingestion of radioactive material over several years did not end well.
In this fictionalised version, the ultra-winsome Charity Wakefield is Catherine Donohue, a young mother and wife who is amongst the first women of her generation to hold down a job in a hopeful, post-Great War America.
At its heart, ‘These Shining Lives’ is a sweet, sparky tale of female friendship, the bulk of which is concerned with Catherine’s efforts to bond with her three co-workers, headed by Honeysuckle Weeks’s wonderfully gravelly Charlotte.
Ingram’s production is pacey and involving, but as tragedy looms, the rather MOR nature of Marnich’s play becomes increasingly apparent. Catherine falls sick, loses her job and takes the Radium Corporation to court, but it all feels strangely perfunctory, a tragic twist to stimulate the tear ducts rather than a genuinely incensed parable of corporate greed.
It’s a slick, moving evening, but in the wake of the recent tragedy in Bangladesh, there’s something disappointingly bland and apolitical at the heart of ‘These Shining Lives’.
By Andrzej Lukowski