Vital Xposure sets out to produce cutting edge theatre that celebrates hidden voices with extraordinary stories to tell. In doing so ‘The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence’ follows on from the companies’ 2011-2013 production ‘The Knitting Circle’, which evolved out of research into the testimonies of women locked away in long-stay institutions. Review by Colin Hambrook
Writer Julie McNamara interviewed a former nurse who had worked in Friern Barnet (known until 1937 as Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum) who told her “don’t forget Dorothy Lawrence. She was our most famous patient.”
The play opens with Dorothy Lawrence (Penelope Freeman), reminiscing with her nurse Mae (Suni La) on the shoddy reportage of the story of suffragette Emily Davison who stepped in front of King George V's horse in June 1913. She sets the tone with her defiance: “A woman died and all that mattered to them was that their horse had won the race”.
Solidly staged with Libby Watson’s economic yet powerfully evocative set design, the story of journalist Dorothy Lawrence is gently paced moving from her time as an older woman in the asylum and her time as the ‘only English woman soldier’ on the front line in Albert, the Somme in 1915.
Freeman portrays young and old Dorothy with conviction and a depth. Some of the most touching scenes are between her and her nurse. Here again Suni La’s performance as Mae connects as the nurse gently encourages Dorothy to have her war diaries published, finally.
As the story unfolds, scenes move alternately between the asylum and the front line. With incredible bravery Lawrence arrives on bicycle, breaching security, posing as a soldier, determined to report the true story of life in the trenches to the press back home. Aided by some of her comrades she was “a good soldier; the best” until her secret is divulged by the sergeant with desperate and exacting consequences.
Caglar Kimyoncu’s exquisite visuals project BSL narrators Matthew Gurney and Becky Allen in period dress, relayed like a Pathe newsreel onto the set. While deaf members of the audience get a précis of the ensuing storyline we hear popular songs like Harry Marlow’s 'When Tommy Comes Marching Home' much to the delight of some more elderly ‘sing-along’ members of the audience.
Alongside Dorothy we see soldiers McComack (Gareth Turkington) and Shura (Simon Balcon) endure the monotony and danger of life in the trenches, with time whiled away in playing cards or indulging in the War Office sanctified brothel service run by Monique (Suni La), Madame of the Red Lanes.
There is a broad gap of over forty years between the young idealistic woman who decided she would be a soldier and the tired elderly person who has been ‘disappeared’ for 39 years, for daring to tell her story. Dorothy is portrayed with a glint in her eye that belies the fact that she knows her story is too good not to out one day. We see a woman continuing to hold her own, despite being censored by the authorities – imagined as a ‘bandit queen in a village of outlaws’, sharing illicit poteen and reliving her memories as Sapper Dennis Smith.
Many women were sent to asylums just for having stepped outside the pale of social acceptability, or who as in Dorothy’s case were deemed undesirable by those in power. The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence begs the question ‘what’s changed in the last hundred years’ when individuals step out of line to challenge the establishment?
At the very least this performance will leave you itching to find out more about Sapper Dorothy: the Only English Woman Soldier of the First World War.
The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence continues its tour to London, Ipswich and Salisbury until 8 October. Please click on this link for details of listings.
Please click on this link to read an interview with Julie McNamara talking about her profound experiences of unearthing untold stories of patients and staff from long-stay institutions. Please cl