Canary Girls

By Fun in the Oven Theatre in collaboration with Teatro en Vilo

York Theatre Royal, 22 Nov 2018

Through physical theatre and contemporary sound design, Fun in the Oven and Teatro en Vilo aim to offer rare insight into the lives of the oft-forgotten heroines of the munitions workers dubbed the Canary Girls. 

Canary is a glimpse into the often overlooked but hugely culturally significant role of women in WWI, telling their stories through Anges, Anne and Betty, three completely different women who are doing their bit for the war effort working in a munitions factory.

The fantastic concept and the three performers that carry this production are its greatest strengths. Katie Tranter plays the leader of the group Agnes with stoicism and humour, Robyn Hambrook is prissy and particular as the upper class Anne, and Alys North is for me the highlight as Betty, playing the young girl with panache, perfect comedic timing and buckets of energy.

The visual design and costuming are glorious. The dirtied yellow faces and rough and ready jumpsuits are full of quirky character that verges on steampunk. It feels fun and interesting, like you’re one step away from smelling fumes and hearing the clanging of machinery.

Unfortunately, it pains me to say that’s where the positives run dry. I get more excited about physical theatre than any other type of performance, but its success relies so heavily on it being expertly executed. All too often in this production the movement just wasn’t quite tight enough, not quite precise enough. 

I loved the sound design, it was a perfect mix of early 1900s ‘keep calm and carry on’ charm and creepy dystopian propaganda, expertly voiced by Lawrence Neale. But the choreography felt like it was just short of perfect, and if the two don’t work in perfect harmony then you start to feel on edge as an audience member. I want to feel safe in the hands of the performers, and in terms of the physical side of the performance, I just didn’t.

The pacing of the piece also let it down. The focal point of the production is an air raid that shuts down the factory and leaves our three protagonists to amuse themselves through a series of games, confessions, trips (yes, I mean the drug induced kind) and conversations through which they reveal dreams of freedom, football and forbidden friendships. 

The way this played out was through a series of what almost felt like stand-alone vignettes, little self contained stories that would begin with light hearted fun, build up to an emotional moment and end with an awkward silence. This played out several times in a row, which interrupted the natural pacing of how I feel a narrative should develop and often made the emotional impact of the stories feel stilted. I didn’t feel any build up in the piece as a whole, or get a sense of the evolution of these women’s relationships. I was left feeling that where I should have felt moved I felt cold, because I had no concept of a narrative arc or any attachment to these characters.

I don’t usually speak with this kind of candor about productions that I have a less positive response to. However, I feel like I want to in this instance because Canary has such potential. The actors are fantastic, the concept is beautiful and the stories that are layered into this piece are bursting to be told. For me, the production feels underdeveloped – it feels as if its on the precipice of tipping over into greatness but just needs to be tightened up. These are clearly a hugely talented company with great ideas and vision, and I hope they continue to grow and live up to their potential in future shows. I’ll be watching with interest!