There was an excellent presentation by 11F last Monday evening at The White Bear in Kennington of Sylvia Rayman’s mysteriously forgotten play Women of Twilight from 1951. I don’t review rehearsed readings unless I’m invited to as it seems an unsporting thing to do. That’s a pity because it was full of moving and memorable performances, even though the cast were seated and working from scripts. Nine actors at the top of their game. Instead, I planned to write about the history and impact of the play because I was so impressed by both its content and the performances of the actors involved.
However, there’s virtually nothing I could say that isn’t already covered by the fascinating and comprehensive website Women of Twilight
The site was created by the play’s ‘reviver’ and modern-day director Jonathan Rigby and I thoroughly recommend taking a look at it. There you’ll see a full history of its success in the Fifties and subsequent sharp consignment to obscurity. I was particularly glad to see one of my own frustrations expressed there; namely the accepted wisdom that modern drama on the British stage began with Look Back in Anger. Apparently everything prior to that was set in either a vicarage or a country house with the inevitable French windows. There was nothing on offer to the likes of us that reflected our own lives and, as everyone knows, Shelagh Delaney was the first woman ever to write a play about ordinary people leading recognisable lives.
Women of Twilight and Yvonne Mitchell’s The Same Sky are two plays from 1951 which prove accepted wisdom wrong on both counts and could be pertinently revived in theatres today. That’s not only because they’re well written but because the challenges and prejudices faced by their characters suddenly have renewed relevance as British attitudes and social policies slide ever backwards. Maybe we’ve reached the 1950s already.
In the case of Women of Twilight that was partly the point of the reading: to highlight how suitable the play is for a new full staging right now. A cast of eleven women is as rare now as it was in 1951. Possibly rarer. Theatre companies large and small had spent the war years overcoming the shortage of male actors in two main ways. There was genderblind casting going on or re-writing male roles into female characters, and then there were new plays being written by and about women. It’s a shame these tended never to be published even though they were widely performed. After the war was over, men came back and elbowed women out of every sphere and industry in which they’d become indispensable and the theatre was no exception, but memories of those wartime plays would have persisted for many when Rayman’s play made its debut in Hayes. Ask at your local theatre why progress has been so slow and so difficult over the intervening 66 years. You might get an answer (you probably won’t)
I really hope a theatre somewhere will see the potential of both Women of Twilight and The Same Sky, not only for the great writing in evidence nor even for the relevance they still have today but as an opportunity to rediscover work by women from the second half of the last century that’s become overlooked for reasons that seem pretty dubious. And they’re both a lot more interesting than anything John Osborne ever wrote.
Women of Twilight rehearsed reading
Written by Sylvia Rayman
Directed by Jonathan Rigby
Cast: Claire Louise Amias (Vivianne), Francesca Anderson (Olga), Amy Comper (Veronica), Elizabeth Donnelly (Christine), Rhiannon Handy (Rosie/Molly), Louise Jameson (Helen), Vanessa Russell (Jess), Emma Spearing (Laura/Nurse)