Theatre review: These Shining Lives, Park Theatre, London


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The Independent Culture

The new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, north London, is a spanking new five-star neighbourhood theatre opening with a three-star play about girls in a 1920s Chicago watch-making factory who are gradually alerted (though not by the bosses) to the dangers of radium in the illuminated dials when one of them becomes seriously ill.

Although slightly over-sentimental and mawkish, Melanie Marnich’s These Shining Lives, premiered in Baltimore in 2008, does have its roots in “proper work” and industrial upheavals, just as the Park is housed in a completely re-built 19 century forge and stables, converted into offices in the late 1970s.

And the play is given a top notch cast with Honeysuckle Weeks of Foyle’s War television fame (Sam Stewart in the first eight seasons) playing Charlotte, the airily derisory then gradually supportive workbench colleague of Charity Wakefield’s pretty young Catherine Donohue; the axis of solidarity swings about throughout the play, and both give highly watchable performances.

Weeks is both critical and understanding of Wakefield’s rose-cheeked innocent. They in turn are flanked by Nathalie Carrington and Melanie Bond as other lively workmates, all four bursting into song, or lolling languorously with their parasols on the beach on a Saturday afternoon, glowing with health – and radium.

Artistic director Jez Bond has raised £2.5m from the sale of the top two floors for apartments (that yielded £1.5m), charities, sponsors and donors to build a nifty, intimate 200-seater main theatre (christened with These Shining Lives) and a 90-seater studio, along with offices, a light-filled rehearsal space, two great bars and a friendly vibe. 

So a play about young women starting out and making waves catches that mood. Catherine’s marriage to Alec Newman’s fleshy, well-moulded construction worker comes under stress and strain, but she takes up more cudgels at work as her radium poisoning is fobbed off with false diagnosis and aspirin prescription.

With help from the others -- described at the time as “disgruntled women” -- she effects a change in the law. The girls were sipping small radium-dipped brushes to make them pointed enough for the filigree design work. Catherine finally won her lawsuit in 1938, dying soon afterwards.  

Loveday Ingram’s production shows off the neat technical efficiency of the new theatre: Tim Shortall’s stripped, stark design, backed with translucent panelling, is poetically lit by Rob Casey, making metaphorical connections between the night sky, the radium glow and moonlight across the lake.  

To 9 June (020 7870 6876)