Theatre review: These Shining Lives, Park Theatre, N4

these shining lives

these shining lives - Credit: Archant

‘It begins like a fairy-tale’. With these lines, Charity Wakefield, playing Katie Donohue, opens These Shining Lives, and the Park Theatre’s inaugural season.

For those who have closely followed the progress of construction here, tonight was a special occasion indeed. Finsbury Park’s reputation as a cultural desert, although a little harsh, has been rather hard to shift. Now, after four years, this bright, young theatre has finally blossomed there; it comprises two spaces of 210 and 80 seats, a late-night bar, coffee shop and a learning centre.

From the evidence of These Shining Lives, a new version of Melanie Marnich’s 2008 play, the artistic programme promises an artistic ambition, and the talent, to match the facilities.

Loveday Ingram has the enviable role of directing in the entirely new space, which is reminiscent of the Domnar Warehouse in layout. And the venue seems well-suited to this accessible, often intimate piece about women entering the workplace in 1920s Illinois. Wakefield’s Katie, a demure yet determined wife of two, takes a job painting watches at a nearby factory, to the ire of her good-hearted-but-traditional steeplejack husband, Tom (Alec Newman).

But things turn sour when Katie and her friends begin to fall sick; what starts as a domestic melodrama morphs into a withering critique of Big Business and worker exploitation.

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Ingram paces the scenes almost perfectly, lending the scene transitions an almost balletic quality. Wakefield is outstanding as the resourceful Katie; her chemistry with her husband Tom (the excellent Alec Newman), and her gradual deterioration is totally believable – a great achievement. She is well supported by Honeysuckle Weeks, as her tough-as-boots work colleague Charlotte. Weeks, with scene-stealing streetwise charisma, is the perfect foil to Katie’s hometown girl, and the tension between them is completely absorbing.

A weakness of the piece is that it recourses to commentary, from Katie, between the scenes. This was a pity; this level of explicitness disenfranchises the audience and prevents us from discovering ourselves what a character is feeling, or what lessons we are learning. Also, if the setting of a scene, and its key dramatic moment, are declared initially rather than being slowly revealed by the writing, the temptation is to sit back, rather than be enthralled.

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But this, while frustrating, is merely a quibble, and the charm of the cast certainly makes up for it.

Overall, for a first show, These Shining Lives is a resounding success. Let’s hope this Finsbury Park fairy-tale goes on forever.

James Richards

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