Searchlights over Bemmy, Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Monday 20 September 2004
In its short history, this theatre has built a national reputation for doing classics. It has also made a virtue of being a local theatre for local people, as they say. Last year, it staged a play exploring its own industrial past:
The Wills's Girls, about the women who produced the cigarettes where the stage now stands.
In its short history, this theatre has built a national reputation for doing classics. It has also made a virtue of being a local theatre for local people, as they say. Last year, it staged a play exploring its own industrial past: The Wills's Girls, about the women who produced the cigarettes where the stage now stands.
Now there's this play, set in the Bedminster ("Bemmy") streets around the theatre during the Bristol blitz. The very worst of the raids came on Good Friday 1941. One of the many houses destroyed was that of Doreen Ramsey, the author of this comedy who, at the age of five, was blown 30 yards on to a railway cutting and survived. (Not even a celebrated war child such as Harold Pinter can boast a direct hit.) These days, Ramsey is a local celebrity and a dialect poet known as "the Bard of Be'minster".
Her comedy (which has been adapted from an earlier work with the help of the show's director, Dan Danson) is Dad's Army, only with more emphasis on the mums. Instead of concentrating on the horrors of the bombing, it focuses on the floral pinnies, fruitless tea scones and mild sexual scandals of an undaunted, plucky, war-time community.
The play is set in the modest home of Doris and Fred, the latter a benign put-that-light-out ARP warden. The couple are socially upstaged by the mink-coated Queenie, who has the best Anderson shelter in town. Her snobbery, however, conceals the appalling shame of having once worked on the floor at the Wills factory. Her husband Bill, with his spivvy lapels (a Bristolian version of Private Walker), deals in black market egg powder and becomes a social leper when he takes up with the repressed Mabel.
There's a lot of tea-making and gossip amid the routine fire drills. There's even a pregnancy scare for brazen young Joyce who - with gravy browning rubbed on her legs - is clearly giving a predatory Yank special rations.
The comedy is so content to be heart-warming, with its corny "whale meet again" jokes and period savour, that it often feels trite. The cast gives the script a lot of elbow grease to diminishing comic returns, though Lilly Thomas as the unpretentious Doris, and Eamonn Fleming as her hangdog hubby Fred are good value, as is Mandy Vernon-Smith who exudes "refained" hauteur as the appalling Queenie.
But despite its air of shambling amateurishness, this wartime comedy went down a bomb with its target audience. The writer's sureness of touch with the "Brizzle" dialect and the play's intensely local nostalgia gave obvious pleasure to a theatre jam-packed with pensioners who lapped up the between-scenes chance of a singalong to musical hits from the era.
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