The Midterm crunch had been as good an excuse as any to avoid going to the theatre with my girlfriend. But my last midterm exam was last Thursday, and so I was left defenseless that night when my girlfriend told me she had tickets for the opening of the newest Concordia Theatre Department play, The Gut Girls. The little I knew about the play gave me cause for concern: the script was originally commissioned by the Albany Empire in 1988 to commemorate the Duchess of Albany’s market girls’ working club. It dealt with issues surrounding women, classism and the industrial revolution. I’d also heard of a production of it where the dozens of individual scenes were all broken up by long, clumsy blackouts. “Oh joy”, I thought, this would be a contrived, wordy, belaboured, historical “issues” play
Thank the Holy Cow for director Greg Kramer. He has spotted the inherent problems in this 145 minute script and turned it into a very fluid, enjoyable spectacle in the Brechtian tradition.
Scenes are seamlessly transitioned with the ensemble singing songs that sound so authentic to the period, I was shocked when I realized they had all been composed for this production. Props to Charlotte Joy Callender for those creations.
Speaking of props, the deliberately faux-looking cow organs and knives littering the chopping blocks, organ buckets and the predominately blood red palette of the set and costumes help to locate the audience in the meatpacking sheds of turn-of-the-century south London in stunning fashion.
The play begins with Annie (Stephanie Merulla) stumbling into such a shed on her first day of work. She soon gets to know, and love, her colourful co-workers who carve up animal carcasses 12 hours a day. She learns all about the stigma, and the benefits, of being a gut girl. Though they were regarded as little better than prostitutes at the time, the girls, usually teenaged, earned far more money gutting than they could have as live-in maids. The income allowed them a level of independence otherwise unheard of for common women. The girls’ independence and ostracism are both very effectively illustrated by the ensemble. The trouble is that it’s explicitly repeated in the dialogue just how low their station is. This made whole chunks of dialogue redundant, and gave the play as much historical exposition as actual conflict.
Lady Helena, the Duchess of Albany, decides to make the refinement of these girls her personal charity mission. When the sheds are shut down by the advent of refrigeration, she takes it upon herself to shape them into young women proper enough to go into service. The resulting shakeup provides the main conflict for the play. In a nod to British music hall tradition, Kramer casted Vance De Waele (a man) as Lady Helena, who gave the part a subtle irony that is too often overdone with cross-gendered roles. Though, I’m not sure that breaking character to grin at your own jokes is exactly Brechtian convention.