THE MAGDALEN WHITEWASH
by Valerie Goodwin
Players Youth Theatre
When one thinks of ‘Youth Theatre,’ one rightly or wrongly automatically presumes gentle, light-hearted and delicate productions full of enthusiastic smiles, bright colours and flashing lights. Imagine my utmost shock and surprise to find that Players Youth Players were staging a production about the horrifying institutions that were the Magdalene Laundries.
The Magdalen(e) Laundries were Roman Catholic institutions run predominately in Ireland and which operated from the 1700s until the late 1990s. Ostensibly work houses, these ‘asylums’ were to house “fallen-women” - young women who had become pregnant outside of wedlock, often through prostitution, abuse and desperation. Operated as work-houses, laundering was seen as penance for the girls’ sins, but the cruel treatment which over 30,000 girls received at the hands of the Nuns and Priests triggered a public scandal and national outcry in the late 1990s as mass graves were unearthed, when they were finally exposed.
Hardly a topic for a “Youth production” you might ask? However, this company did a sterling job at presenting this hard-hitting, thought provoking and emotional piece of drama.
It was the aforementioned discovery of mass graves, and subsequent Channel 4 documentary, which inspired playwright, Valerie Goodwin, to tell the story of a group of girls at one of the work houses in ‘The Magdalen Whitewash.’ Previously only having been performed by adults, this was the first time that a youth group has tackled this production -and so excited was the author to see their interpretation that she drove up from Dorset to watch the performances - twice! A great accolade, and boost in confidence, for the group.
With a simple but clever set, designed by the Players Set Building Team, the austerity and harsh conditions of the laundries was immediately established with mottle-green walls, hard wooden floors and religious iconography acting as a constant reminder that ‘penitence is forgiveness.’ Part of the stage was dominated by a line of laundry itself with the hard-hitting slogan ‘Wages of Sin’ emblazoned on it -a constant reminder to the girls of the payment for their “crimes.” With separate playing areas simply and effectively created by the placing of tables and chairs (and more religious icons) forward on the stage apron, the harsh conditions of 1930s Ireland was established clearly.
Directed by Barbara Harris, the story tells the life and experiences of the newest inmate Mary (played by Anamika Chow) as she becomes institutionalised by the laundries over a period of 16 years after suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her father. Chow’s playing of Mary over time effectively showed the timidity and frailness of the character, and encouraged the audience to share in the bleak sadness of her situation, especially when she meets her ‘daughter’ 16 years later (played expertly by Nemone Wolfendale). As her daughter pleads to save her and take her away from the laundries, to no avail, the audience shared the desperation and haunting pathos of the situation.
Each inmate of the laundry was played very differently, with Harris’ direction pulling out the different intricacies and sadnesses of each character, which worked effectively in showing the audience the range of women who were incarcerated, and the abuse which they suffered. Different ages too were presented, such as that of 64 year old Marie played by Eliza Godfrey, with vocalisation and physicality effectively creating a sense of age.
Hard-hitting stage images were created by the girls at odds with the Nuns, whose care they were supposedly under, in a constant battle of the perception of ‘goodness.’ Costumes and makeup by Pam Lambert similarly conveyed this sense of juxtaposition -with the pristinely made up Nuns and Vicars at odds with the dishevelled and impoverished girls - both visually and emotionally effective. Whilst there were some protracted scene changes, it was nice to have the girls move the furniture themselves, but maybe a tighter focus on some significant props would have helped - for example, the cup of tea spilling at the start with three sugar cubes falling out after having poured the tea.
With some actors doubling up parts, accolade must go to the cast of talented young actors (aged between 13 and 18) who took on this hard-hitting, emotional, and at times, very unsettling piece of theatre. Agonising over the situation the girls found themselves in, humour conveyed both the naivety of youth and the grim acceptance of their desperate situation, effectively conveyed by Bernadette (Naomi Hunter), Martha (Sarah Morgan), Assumpta (Phoebe Clase) and Pauline (Sarah Mather). It would have been nice to have heard a stronger attempt at Irish accents throughout the piece, in order to complement the Irish music in the scene changes to set the tone of the location, and to reflect thoughtfully upon the previous action of each scene.
Nemone Wolfendale’s handling of a three-role performance offered us three very different characters, including that of the Mother Superior. With eyes heavenward and looks of despair, gentle feeling for the sisters was conveyed well through a cold and steely exterior as the audience felt that the Mother Superior was the only character who really cared for girls conditions. However, under the instructions of the Father O’Connell (James Schilling) and Father Doyle (Harry Bailey), there was not much she could do to ‘save’ them.
It was an interesting choice, perhaps a decision made based on availability of cast, to have some of the boys (Sam Higgs, Alex Priestley and Li Chow) to play female characters. All three performances were sympathetic and kudos must be paid to them for their brave and controlled performances as Sister Ignatia, Patricia and Gabrielle respectively. The other boys in the piece highlighted the cruel treatment of the girls by the local deliverymen, played superbly humorously by Toby Metcalf and Liam Stuckey.
This was my first visit to the society and I want to thank you for a most enjoyable evening, where I was warmly received by the society -and got to share in the viewing of their in-house award ceremony. It was a rare pleasure, too, to meet with the author of the play, Valerie Goodwin, and to hear her thoughts on the piece. Having seen the show performed by adults all around the country (and even in Dallas, Texas) Goodwin told the audience at the end of the performance that this ranked up there amongst the best -and rightly so. Permission has been granted to perform a truncated version of this script for the Greater Manchester Drama Federation’s Youth One Act Festival where I am sure this cast will take some beating.
It is clear that when a cast gels together it can create a truly unselfish performance, and this Youth Group of 14 actors certainly did just that. Tackling a very hard subject maturely, often with thoughtfulness and sincerity seemingly beyond their young ages, Players Youth Theatre presented a truly thought-provoking, emotional and astute piece of drama -which completely shattered my preconceptions of ‘Youth Theatre.’