Friday, 7 March 2014

The Gut Girls - Jack Studio Theatre

SOUTH London's Victorian past is being brought vividly to life thanks to a Lewisham-based theatre company.
Out Fox Productions is staging The Gut Girls, a play written in 1988 by Sarah Daniels about a group of Victorian women working in Deptford cattle markets at the turn of the last century.
Here, the girls would, in the freezing cold and up to their ankles in blood and gore, earn a decent salary by carving up dead cows, sheep and pigs.
But despite the conditions, the women had a level of financial and social independence that was extremely unusual in Victorian times.
The play is being staged in Brockley at the Jack Studio Theatre, a few miles away from where it is set near the Deptford docks.
Out Fox Productions' producer Kirsty Fox says she chose the piece not only because of its local connections but also because it is a story about women and their struggles against social change.
"It's a fascinating and compelling drama which shows very clearly what life was like for women at that time," she says. "For those who were not born in to wealth, it meant going into domestic service where there was no independence and not much money.
"But here in Deptford there were a group of women who, despite being viewed as being at the bottom of the social heap, were not only working and earning a wage but they were getting relatively well paid and they were able to have a social life which was incredibly rare."
The story charts the journeys of five different women who work in the gutting sheds. They are brash but are hard working and proud of their jobs. They are boisterous, foul-mouthed, drink beer and after clocking off they are able to have free time which they spend either in the pubs or local music halls.
However, things start changing when a 'reformer' arrives in the shape of Lady Helena, an aristocratic do-gooder. She tries to improve the girls through bible studies and sobriety and 'save' them from their appalling working conditions.
"It is ultimately quite tragic," says Kirsty. "These reformers were on a crusade to save the women because they thought life would be better for them if they were more ladylike and genteel. It was well intentioned but wasn't wanted.
"Social change was beginning and there were new laws on hygiene and health and safety and all these things eventually saw the demise of the gutting sheds.
"But with that it meant the girls were robbed of their independence, their spirit, their jobs, and really their lives.
"In the play we see how their fortunes panned out - some went into domestic service, but some didn't and fell into extreme poverty which must have been horrendous - not least because they had lost everything they worked so hard for as well as the friendships they had with each other."
Despite the subject matter the cast, who are all based in South London, have had fun re-creating the grim conditions the girls would have found themselves in.
"It has been a real challenge to give a sense of the blood, guts and gore of the slaughterhouse but we've had a lot of fun - especially making livers and sausages," laughs Kirsty.
"One of the cast even went to her local butcher to help out to get a taste of what life was like handling and cutting meat.
"But it's the stories of the girls which has been really exciting to find out more about," she adds. "It's a great play for women - they are really are meaty roles," she laughs.
"It's hard to come across plays which have such strong female characters so I'm really excited to be bringing it to the Jack, especially given the local references within it - of which there are a few."
It is the sixth production the company has brought to the Jack Studio Theatre.
"We were over the moon to be asked to be one of the Jack's associate companies especially as we only established the company three years ago," says Kirsty. "They have been brilliant to work with, are very supportive and give lots of advice as well as rehearsal space."
"Out Fox Productions is a very exciting young company," adds the Jack's artistic director, Kate Bannister. "The Gut Girls is a great local story for us so it has been a perfect fit. It's gritty but there is a lot of humour in it as well as being an incredible and fascinating piece of social history.
"What would be fantastic is if we get a descendent of the original gut girls come to see it."

Gut Girls is on at the Jack Studio Theatre, Brockley Road from Tuesday March 11 until Saturday, March 29.
Tickets cost £14. Call the box office on 0844 8700 887.

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