Over three years ago I had a conversation musician, songwriter and writer Phil Jones in which he told me a story he’d unearthed from boating history.
In the early part of the Second world war Britain’s canals suffered from a labour shortage, caused mostly by military service A recruiting drive in 1941 did attract some men to the waterways
The Grand Union Canal Carrying Company, GUCCC, noted that they also received 47 applications from women, offers they refused stating that only women from boating families already employed on the canal, could be used, with the Severn and Canal Carrying Company saying that “to work canal boats by female labour entirely [was] not a practical proposition.”
Late in 1941 the Ministry of War Transport wrote to boaters Daphne March and Frances Traill who had been using March’s own boat, Heather Bell, to transport cargo since 1940 to see if the pair would train women to work the boats. March and Traill agreed.
Phil wrote a nine-page story to start with and put together a troupe of actor/writers/musicians who developed this, through workshops, into the musical play you see on the stage now ‘Idle Women’ – so called by Hattie Woolfit, daughter of Susan Woolfit from the badges they wore with the IW insignia.
Its initial, work in progress, appearance on the Brighton Fringe Festival was a roaring success receiving rave reviews so I sat excitedly waiting for the Wordfest show to start.
The show begins with a mixture of ‘real’ Idle Women voices and company members followed by excellent musical accompaniment from the show’s musicians, Phil Jones, Nicola Bloom (also co-writer) and Scott Smith.
The set is delightfully minimal with wooden blocks (made incidentally by Ewan Jones the sound engineer) which are constantly moved by the cast to become varying areas of the boat, with a handful of perfectly chosen props. Sound and lighting design by Ewan Jones and Strat Mastoris respectively was perfectly executed.
The Daphne March figure has become the lead fictional character, Edna, in this new musical and she is the first woman, played by Emma Baars, we meet on stage. We are swiftly introduced to the rest of the crew Ginny (Elizabeth Kroon), Ruth (Catriona Judt) and Meg (Maple Preston-Ellis). With an unexpected visitor (Aaron Coomer) throwing a spanner in works.
The songs are without fail remarkable, strikingly delivered; each expressing the turmoil, hopes and cares within these women who have come together in unusual circumstances. If I had to single out one song it’s ‘If They Only Knew’ which brought tears to my eyes, and not a regular occurrence for this critic I assure you! It was performed by Meg (Maple Preston-Ellis) with simple, harmonic truthfulness.
I’m not going to relate the story as this is a production you must see yourself . Suffice to say that they travel not just along the waterways but also through issues and concerns whilst doing so. All the cast members are outstanding without fail.
It’s a charming, energetic, heart-warming and soul-searching piece of theatre which deserves to be seen and a story told more widely.
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