Alex McSweeney’s Out Of The Cage received its world premiere this week on the smaller stage at Finsbury’s Park Theatre, one of Stage Review’s favourite fringe London venues.
Set in an East End munitions factory mid-way through the First World War, it’s a beginner’s guide to the period that, while very informative, spends much longer than necessary getting the audience up to scratch with the era’s social and gender inequalities, resulting in a rushed second act.
For those with no prior knowledge of the pay disparities, the health problems faced by those working with the TNT used in explosives, or the fight for female suffrage, you’re in for an educational night.
But if you’ve got even a rudimentary understanding of the era, after the first 50 minutes of chat you really just want everyone to stop talking and get on and do something.
The all female cast put in strong performances, but the characters are pretty clichéd: the Cockney good time gals with a fruity use of language, the do-gooder liberal toff, the far-left-of-centre Irish radical, and the sunken eyed mother-of-six, ripped apart by pain but still showing up for work for the sake of the bairns back home.
A pre-NHS-era comment on modern-day welfare cutbacks, perhaps? Or am I looking into this too much?
As they unintentionally hamper the cause with their blind class hatred, the scenes between Sarah Madigan as our posh-gal-hating, Irish revolutionary Nelly Johnson and Katherine Tozer as well-to-do Nancy Longdon (a round-of-applause to whoever sourced her gorgeous outfit) are stand-outs.
I’m not sure if ladies, even working class ones, in 1916, ever utilised the F-word in public or yelled ‘oh tickle your arse with a feather’, but it certainly works in bringing comic relief.
Emily Houghton’s boozy, balshy, Eastender Annie Castledine feels like a character we’ve seen a million times before, but she passionately delivers many of the night’s best lines.
Things get going in the second half, when the women arrive for their shift, determined that the rest of the factory will join them in downing tools and striking for equal pay.
The grind of machinery and danger of the work is creatively represented with scenes reminiscent of an industrial metal music video.
The heavy techno, green lights and dance moves are an unexpected contrast to the slightly slow talking-shop of the first half, and contribute toward the tension build up as we count down to the time to strike. Will they or won’t they pull this off? And to what ends?
With women still not equal in the workplace, and with virtual slave-labour rampant in factories worldwide, this is a social commentary that, despite being almost 100 years old, doesn’t feel out of date.
A little less conversation and a little more action wouldn’t have gone amiss, but Out Of The Cage is saved by a cast that looks so genuinely passionate about telling this story of hope, dignity and courage, that they really take you with them.
The WW1 centenary focused heavily on the millions of boys who fought and died for our freedom. For good reason. But it’s also important that we remember these lesser known tales and understand the impact they had.
Kudos to Out Of The Cage for getting me straight on Google when I got home, to read more about the munition factory workers and the sacrifice they made for King and country.
Out Of The Cage runs at the Park Theatre until February 14.