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Lilies on the Land (tour - Newbury, Corn Exchamge)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Compiled from a collection of letters by ex-land girls, the Lions part has created a somewhat poignant, but often clunky, piece of documentary theatre about the experiences of members of the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War.

The piece opens with an introduction to four characters who begin to share their stories of being a part of the WLA, from the first unpacking of their uniform through to the end of the war. The play progresses through different accounts and memoirs of the real women, some funny and some deeply moving.

It’s an odd mix of styles; drifting in and out of songs, radio broadcasts, monologues, and storytelling. The main fault is the lack of any coherent structure or flow, with transitions between stories clumsy at best. The material is generally strong, but it’s the way that the show is constructed that lets it down. The narrative structure is non-existent, which is infuriating when some of the accounts and stories are genuinely touching.

The performances are average but there are some great moments – particularly from Kali Peacock who is the strongest by far, with impeccable comic timing and excellent physicality. She steals the show throughout, bringing the audience to tears of laughter when portraying a girl with a mouse trapped in her cleavage, and later when singing a song as a cow.

Unfortunately Peacock’s energy and stage presence highlights the weaknesses of the other three performers, who rarely generate any gripping action. Lilies On The Land has clearly been inspired by Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What A Lovely War, but the lack of a strong ensemble in this production makes for an often unconvincing and slow performance. The performers regularly overact, exaggerating moments and slipping into a more Theatre-In-Education type performance, which isn’t appropriate for a professional production, and also diminishes the emotional power.

There is a lovely moment when actual letters are used as devices, there’s a beautiful scene about prisoners of war, a section about threshing stands out in my mind as one when the actors work brilliantly together, and some of the bursts of song are excellent. One can only wish that these points were slotted into the play at better times.

The direction by Sonia Ritter is unfocused; the characters are sometimes interacting and talking to each other, and sometimes completely separate. Monologues that should be simple and moving are transformed into chats and asides for seemingly no dramatic gain. The design from Jane Linz Roberts is completely flawed, with props cluttering the stage and never really being used, resulting in it feeling over-complicated and thereby stilting the action.

Material which should be inspiring and moving is often misfired, usually placed in completely the wrong section of the play, and performed with a lack of enthusiasm.

With fresh direction and restructuring, this could be a brilliant show, but in its current form is only effective for educational performances in museums and schools. That in itself isn’t a bad thing, and this would be a strong addition to an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum for example, but on a theatrical level this piece never comes close to filling its potential.


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