The First World War remains a defining moment in our history and a visit to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds to see a production of Alice Nutter’s play, Barnbow Canaries, was both poignant and heart wrenching…. the story of a part of the history of Leeds.
The “women behind the guns” were the thousands of female munitions workers who kept the British army supplied with shells during the First World War. England needed these women – at least until the end of the war, when factory jobs were reserved for the returning heroes who had fought in the trenches. The women who worked at the secret Barnbow Factory in Leeds – set up after the disastrous loss of British lives at Neuve Chapelle in 1915, when more shells were used during 35 minutes of action than in the entire Boer war – made a major contribution to the war effort.
This production of Alice Nutter’s play about Barnbow opened in the factory floor and the trenches were intimately entwined in an opening image of death. As Nutter makes clear, the Barnbow women may not have faced the German guns, but they did face peril: slow death by TNT poisoning that turned their skin yellow, or being blown apart by accidental explosions, such as the one that ripped through Hut 42 in December 1915, killing 35 women and injuring many more.
At the heart of Nutter’s likable fictional story, which used the names of some of those who died, were Agnes and Edith, two sisters who go to work at the factory, lured by the high wages. The spirited Agnes sees Barnbow as a way out of domestic servitude in a house where her employer weighs the dust she has collected; the zealous Sunday school teacher, Edith, who hands out white feathers to men who have not volunteered, hopes to save enough to get an education after the war. Both find themselves and their prickly relationship changed by their experiences at Barnbow.
Threaded through with contemporary First World War songs and full of heart and female solidarity, Nutter’s script puts the lives of ordinary working-class women on stage with linguistic verve.
It was gripping.
The ensemble and community cast delivered, with a terrific Colette O’ Rourke as Agnes, the slacker who turned into the fastest munitionette, and there is no doubting that the play was fuelled by anger and outrage. The women who lost their lives never received compensation or recognition for their sacrifices. At the end, yellow balloons rose above the stage, one for every woman lost at Barnbow. Gone, but not forgotten after all.