These Shining Lives

Alec Newman. Photo: Annabel Vere
The new theatre’s much better than the new play, but the whole enterprise looks promising. Jez Bond‘s splendid new neighbourhood theatre looks like a metro destination, too, with its Donmar-style auditorium, buzzy bar and sleek glass and brick design.

These Shining Lives is a (nearly) two-hour play by American writer Melanie Marnich about girls who worked in a Chicago watch-makers’ sweatshop in the 1920s, delicately applying a radium-soaked treatment that would make the dials glow in the dark.

Trouble was, the hands on the girls were soon glowing as much as the hands on the dials, and the popular mantra that radium was good for you gradually gave way, on the girls’ part, at least, to a realisation that they were being poisoned.

The fight to right this wrong is told in the true story of Catherine Donohue – pertly and bewitchingly well played by Charity Wakefield – whose husband (Alec Newman, tough and muscular) works as a construction worker on the city’s new skyscrapers and whose best friend, Charlotte (the glorious Honeysuckle Weeks, star of Foyle’s War on television), counsels prudence in her campaign until she, too, is overtaken by the side effects.

It’s an extraordinary coincidence that this play should have opened within a week of the transfer of London Wall (about exploited female office workers in the 1930s) and the Young Vic’s riotous Public Enemy, in which vested interests prevent the closing of a health spa fuelled by a contaminated water supply.

Marnich concentrates on the camaraderie of the girls at the expense of political intensity, perhaps, and there’s a tendency towards soupiness and soppiness in some of the writing.

But the atmosphere crackles with good humour as well as the radium, and Loveday Ingram’s smart production finds plenty of light in the shadow, and the cast (all except for Wakefield doubling in small roles, too) moves nimbly around the intimate stage area, surrounded by the audience on three sides and inspected from above in the gallery.

Nathalie Carrington and Melanie Bond complete the lively workbench quartet, unexpectedly breaking into four-part harmony and creating some memorable period stage pictures in Tim Shortall’s darkling design and Brigid Guy’s excellent costumes.

The well-equipped little venue has a good lighting system, too, cleverly exploited by Rob Casey, and the corresponding male quartet of “baddies” – including employers, and the doctor who smokescreens the problem as “women talk,” prescribing aspirin – is nicely pointed by David Calvitto.