When We Were Women

Theatre, Off-West End
3 out of 5 stars
 (© Ben Broomfield)
© Ben BroomfieldAbigail Lawrie and Mark Edel-Hunt
 (© Ben Broomfield)
© Ben BroomfieldAbigail Lawrie and Steve Nicolson
 (© Ben Broomfield)
© Ben BroomfieldAbigail Lawrie
 (© Ben Broomfield)
© Ben BroomfieldAbigail Lawrie, Lorraine Pilkington and Steve Nicolson
 (© Ben Broomfield)
© Ben BroomfieldLorraine Pilkington and Abigail Lawrie
 (© Ben Broomfield)
© Ben BroomfieldSarah-Jayne Butler

This welcome revival for Sharman Macdonald's brilliant play never quite hits top gear

What an awesome mum Keira Knightley’s got in Sharman Macdonald. One who writes plays that rip the dicks off the patriarchy, with lines like 'marriage is what women have been brought up for' dribbling out of a drunken father on his daughter’s wedding day.

In this co-production between Snapdragon and the Orange Tree – the first revival of 'When We Were Women' since its premiere at the National in 1988 – it’s not just men who come in for a kicking: it’s religion and poverty too. 

It’s 1943 on the streets of Glasgae. There’s a gusting Scottish fog that gives form to each beam of light on the stark, grey stage (James Turner’s chilly design). Seventeen-year-old Isla (Abigail Lawrie) lives with her parents and is all ‘up the women’; then she meets Mackenzie (Mark Edel-Hunt) and she’s up the duff. 

Macdonald’s characters are easy to like and loathe in equal measure. It’s Isla and her mother Maggie (Lorraine Pilkington) who get the fullest treatment. In Isla we see the difference between the way she behaves at home (daddy’s little girl) and outside (necking half pints of gin). Pilkington’s Maggie is all ferocity up front, rocketing around with a pinny and a spatula and clutching at the dignity her status allows, but still a vulnerable wee wain inside.

Both of them try to do right by the men in their lives and get fucked over as a result. The choice for these women is whether to endure it or fight back.

Shame is a theme that runs through the play. It’s a shame that drives teenage women to wed and a shame that festers in loveless marriages, where the husband works and drinks while the wife worries about what the neighbours think. And it’s a shame that this production, occasionally moving but often as damp as a Glaswegian street, doesn’t quite capture the relentless rhythm of Macdonald’s writing.



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