By Andrew Woodger
Ipswich's New Wolsey Theatre has shown its commitment to putting on challenging, diverse works again with a play about a little known charity. With humour and pathos it's lifted the lid on a world most of us probably didn't know existed.
Richard Cameron's play Flower Girls is about disabled women, but it's really about the hopes and fears that all of us have about finding relationships or simply friendships.
That much is set out straight away as we're taken back to the 1960's at the Edgware home set up by the Grooms charity which aims to provide work and accommodation for disabled women.
The home is called The Crippleage and, yes, that really was its real name. Many of the women there had come from orphanages including one in Clacton, Essex.
The play suggests that if you put three women in a room the talk will inevitably turn to sex! It's the same when we are taken further back in time to the 1940's when three different characters talk about their lives.
There's no story as such - it's very much like an Alan Bennett style Talking Heads piece - with the characters interacting, falling out with each other, making up, trying to give each other emotional support in difficult circumstances.
There's a range of characters - all played convincingly in a drama which challenges our preconceptions in many ways.
In the 1960's scenes there's straight-talking Mabel (Lynne Goddard) who also does a very amusing impression of HM ahead of The Queen's impending visit to the Crippleage.
Wheelchair-user Joan (played by Sophie Partridge) is an artist's model, much to the shock of her friends who make jokes about her looking like a Picasso. She also smokes on stage - which comes as a bit of a shock after all the fuss about Mel Smith lighting up on stage when he played Winston Churchill. Society has yet to collapse as a result.
Rose (Lizzie Smoczkiewicz) is a younger woman who's a bit more naive about being in a home, although it's a bit hard to discern what her disability is.
I think the scenes set during the Second World War are more powerful. Alice (Nicola Miles-Wildin) has had a pretty grim childhood and craves affection from her housemates.
Lily (Karina Jones) is a beauty who's blind, but even she fears that a soldier, who's just about to go off to war, couldn't really want to marry her. She's told him to wait until he comes back to see if he still feels the same way.
Tough-nut Sally (Sonia Cakebread) seems to have a harder exterior, but even she tries to pretend to 'outsiders' that her withered arm was the result of an accident with a mangle rather than what she was born with.
She fears the accident line would make her more likely to find a man - "I've had a few one-night stands on the strength of my mother's mangle" being one of the funniest lines in the play.
There's also a scene which shows how the women had to write 'begging letters' to the patrons of the home in order to get things such as new leg calipers.
What about the flowers, then?
The play stays in the accommodation areas rather than visiting the workplace where they make artificial flowers. The bedrooms are little more than dorms with curtain as partitions - offering limited privacy.
Mabel, Rose and Joan in a sixties scene
You soon forget that the co-producer, the Graeae Theatre Company, is a disabled company although it obviously helps that the actresses know more about what goes on in the characters' heads from their own life experience.
The performance is signed, and the people doing the signing stand on the stage near the actresses. They're also part of the backdrop and action, so it only seems natural they should be there. It raises the question of why shouldn't every play have a signer on stage?
What I thought might be a depressing couple of hours was anything but, although it does leave you wondering if the best the women will ever do is cope with their lot rather than finding any real measure of happiness.
Flower Girls is at the New Wolsey (01473 295 900) 5-13 October 2007 before moving on to the Drum Theatre, Plymouth 16-20 October and ending its run at the Hampstead Theatre, London 23-27 October.
You can read an article and listen and watch features on the background of the Grooms homes by clicking on the other links on this page.
last updated: 09/10/07
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