[Review] 'These Shining Lives'

The new Park Theatre in Finsbury Park, north London, opened in 2013 with a three-star play about girls in a 1920s Chicago watch-making factory who are gradually alerted (though not by the bosses) to the dangers of radium in the illuminated dials when one of them becomes seriously ill.
Although slightly over-sentimental and mawkish, Melanie Marnich’s 'These Shining Lives', premiered in Baltimore in 2008, does have its roots in 'proper work' and industrial upheavals.

And the play was given a top notch cast with Honeysuckle Weeks of Foyle’s War television fame (Sam Stewart in the first eight seasons) playing Charlotte, the airily derisory then gradually supportive workbench colleague of Charity Wakefield’s pretty young Catherine Donohue; the axis of solidarity swings about throughout the play, and both give highly watchable performances.
Weeks was both critical and understanding of Wakefield’s rose-cheeked innocence. They in turn were flanked by Nathalie Carrington and Melanie Bond as other lively workmates, all four bursting into song, or lolling languorously with their parasols on the beach on a Saturday afternoon, glowing with health – and radium.

So, it's also a play about young women starting out and making waves catches that mood. Catherine’s marriage to Alec Newman’s fleshy, well-moulded construction worker comes under stress and strain, but she takes up more cudgels at work as her radium poisoning is fobbed off with false diagnosis and aspirin prescription.

With help from the others - described at the time as 'disgruntled women' - she effects a change in the law. The girls were sipping small radium-dipped brushes to make them pointed enough for the filigree design work. The foreman assured them this is perfectly safe. Radium is ‘more than OK for you — it’s medicinal’. Catherine finally won her lawsuit in 1938, dying soon afterwards.

Loveday Ingram’s production shows off the neat technical efficiency of the new theatre: Tim Shortall’s stripped, stark design, backed with translucent panelling, is poetically lit by Rob Casey, making metaphorical connections between the night sky, the radium glow and moonlight across the lake.

More about Honeysuckle Weeks can be found here

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