Lilies on the Land – review for Essential Surrey website.
Andrew Morris reviews this poignantly entertaining performance of Lilies on the Land, at Guildford’s Electric Theatre until November 7. A fitting tribute to “the forgotten army”.
The ladies of Lilies on the Land, playing the WLA
It’s shameful that the efforts of the Women’s Land Army – formed in WW1 but resurrected in 1939 for WWII – were only formally recognised as late as 2008. By 1943 more than 80,000 Land Girls served in theWLA, keeping war-torn Britain fed by performing the hard agricultural tasks normally carried out by men, now fighting on the fronts.
The play was devised by the Lions part as a documentary drama, based on more than 150 letters from old WLA members, as well as personal interviews to dig a fork into their memories.
The girls’ thrill of signing up and receiving their iconic, functional uniforms is soon replaced by the harsh reality of long days in remote farms, low pay and back-breaking work in the fields. They know nothing about milking a cow, ploughing a straight furrow, digging a drainage ditch or using a scythe to clear a few acres.
Despite the hardship, they maintain their spirits and sense of humour through camaraderie, and the knowledge that they are performing a vital role for the war effort.
The director, Amy Yorston, skilfully intertwines factual radio broadcasts with the girls’ efforts, to map the progress of the conflict. And three singers and a pianist add some welcome variety to the production, with evocative renditions of wartime classics, including White Cliffs of Dover and When This Lousy War Is Over.
The singing of Silent Night on Christmas Day in 1942 – in harmony with German and Italian language versions sung by POWs from nearby camps – is particularly poignant.
But the stories of the four girls – Margie (Majella Yorston), Vera (Cheryl Malam), Peggy (Mandy Grealis) and Poppy (Christine Siddall) – form the warm, beating heart of the production. And lest we forget that it’s not all fresh cows’ milk and honey for them, some poignant incidents undermine their natural frivolity and resilience.
They are subject to the unwelcome sexual attentions of farmers and POWs. They’re unlikely to hear the death-knell of diving doodlebugs over tractor engines. Farmers often underpay them. The cold winters chill them to the bone.
All the male characters in this homage to women are played by Ian Creese (not pictured). His curmudgeonly northern farmer is particularly convincing!
The Merrow Dramatic Society are amateur thespians, but their professionalism – they were formed in the 1920s and perform two productions a year at The Electric Theatre – shines through, as does their passion for the subject matter in Lilies on the Land, a fitting tribute to the forgotten army of Land Girls.
Lilies on the Land is at the Electric Theatre until November 7