Wrens, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

Editor’s Rating

It is May 1945. On an Orkney naval base, news that peace is about to be declared has reached one of the women’s cabins. But while the “big war” may be ending, there are little wars ongoing between the bickering, distrustful Wrens – until one of their own finds herself in a predicament that forces an uneasy armistice in even those.

Annie McGravie’s script, being performed here in preview by Tiny Teapot Theatre in preparation for a run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, throws seven very different characters together in a confined space. Fireworks are inevitable, of course – but a successful play finds the original and unexpected, and truth be told we don’t get too much in the way of that here. What we do get, though, is the sense of cataclysmic change approaching – the prospect of encroaching peacetime being as daunting as the start of a war.

But for all the wartime trappings, it is the story of 19-year-old Dawn’s pregnancy as a result of a rape by one of her work colleagues that is the real story here. No matter that it was the result of an assault, in 1945 her pregnancy would be enough to force the young Wren to be dishonourably discharged. And while abortions were available if you knew where to look, they were of course illegal – so getting rid of the baby could result in prosecution, and her cabinmates’ knowledge could brand them as accessories.

While Lauren Burgess’s Dawn is at the heart of this story, the real interest comes from the other characters and their reactions. Of particular note here are Rachel Ashwanden’s prickly Gwyneth, who subtly changes from being Dawn’s verbal sparring partner to quietly, methodically helping her, and Cynthia (Helen Kennedy) as the self-proclaimed snob who at first wants nothing to do with her cabinmates, but does demonstrate that she is capable of compassion when needed.

The real force to watch, though, is 17-year old Meg, played by Phoebe Sparrow. In a cast of actresses of similar ages, she wears her character’s youth and inexperience lightly, but as an unwanted child who was sent to be brought up in a convent, her reaction to Dawn’s unwanted pregnancy brings with it real weight.

Sparrow’s performance aside, there are a mixed bag of acting talents on show here. I suspect most of them will settle down prior to the show’s Edinburgh run next month, though. However, I can’t help feeling a smaller cast would help tighten up this play, which tends to sag in a few too many places at the moment, particularly at the start of the piece.

Rewrites apart, some tightening up in the direction will help a play which eventually ends as an involving, emotional story hold the audience from the beginning.

Wrens will be playing at the Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh, August 4-28.

Wrens, Upstairs at the Gatehouse2Scott Matthewman2011-07-31 17:05:34It is May 1945. On an Orkney naval base, news that peace is about to be declared has reached one of the women’s cabins. But while the “big war” may be…

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.