The Daily Telegraph – June 15 2010
by Charles Spencer
Lilies on the Land at the London Arts Theatre pays tribute to the fortitude of women on the home front.
The Land Girls of the Second World War had to wait a long time before they received official recognition. They were often dubbed “the forgotten army”, but it wasn’t until 2008 that those still alive finally received special badges honouring their work in keeping Britain supplied with food while the men were away fighting the war. Yet this wonderful show strikes me as an even better tribute to the pluck and fortitude of the young women who served on the home front. Devised and presented by a company called The Lion’s Part, it is based on the testimony of those who made “their home fields their battlefields” as the propaganda put it at the time.
The Lions Part placed an open letter in Saga magazine asking members of the Women’s Land Army if they would send reminiscences and material about their experiences – and received 150 letters in reply. They then went on to interview some of the respondents personally, and crafted this play from all the information they had gathered.
But although it has the satisfying tang of lived experience, Lilies on the Land is also beautifully crafted. Four characters whom we come to know well in the course of the show deliver vivid accounts of their experiences.
The action begins with the announcement of Churchill’s death in 1965, prompting the women to look back, and the four actresses play not just the main characters but the supporting roles of grouchy farmers, cheeky labourers and American GIs who bring a touch of glamour, luxury and a frisson of excitement into the Land Girls’ often harsh and circumscribed lives. The time scheme is clever, too, following the seasons of one year, while also covering the whole war from 1939-45.
It is the brave, cheerful, authentic voices of the Land Girls themselves, however, that make the show so special, as they vividly describe the back-breaking labour of lifting potatoes, the horrors of cleaning out the pig sheds, the relief of warming their frozen hand on the cows’ udders at early morning milking and the euphoria of learning to drive a tractor and plough a perfect furrow.
The hazards they faced ranged from doodlebugs to the unwelcome sexual attentions of randy farmers and POWs, but there is a lot of laughter and good companionship, too. Different narratives are lucidly intertwined, and the four-strong company in Sonia Ritter’s simple, affecting production also sing popular songs from the period, ranging from The White Cliffs of Dover to the Land Girls’ personalised version of When This Lousy War Is Over.
The characters include a cheerful cockney and a lonely Geordie, the latter isolated in a vile cold comfort farm, as well as a couple a couple of posh and admirably plucky southerners. All four members of the company – Dorothy Lawrence, Kali Peacock, Sarah Finch and Rosalind Cressy – bring their roles to vivid life and one leaves the theatre moved, amused and with the strong conviction that one has encountered the British character at its absolute best.
The Times – June 14 2010
By Sam Marlowe
It wasn’t until 2000 that the surviving former members of the Women’s Land Army received an official invitation to pay their respects at the Cenotaph. Devised by the Lions part company from letters and interviews with original Land Girls, this lively play colourfully reveals the realities of digging for victory. It’s a predictable mix of the poignant and the humorous; and although the four performers interact, chuckling, wincing or nodding sympathetically at each other’s stories, the narrative is dependent on the dramatically unexciting form of interwoven monologues. Yet it’s impossible not to be awed by the bravery, determination and resolute stamina of the women whose experiences are evoked here.
Peggy is a resourceful Cockney who chooses the WLA over a job in a hospital because she’s squeamish. The well-to-do Poppy is seduced by recruitment posters featuring golden-haired girls with gleaming teeth. The independent-minded Vera is stifled by her conventional upbringing and longs for a more challenging, useful life. And the shy, pretty Geordie Margie falls for the Land Girl uniform and signs up expecting to pick fruit and vegetables in the sunny South. None of them is prepared for the rigours and hardships ahead — and it’s not just a matter of outdoor loos, long hours, meagre rations and backbreaking labour. Their travails are often comical: the difficulty of ploughing a straight furrow when you’re short-sighted, the first encounter with a cow’s udders or a randy bull. But there are also reports of sexual assault and sadistic bullying; one woman recalls being fenced in by farmworkers around a hayrick swarming with rats. And beneath the courage and camaraderie lurks terror, for distant loved ones and for themselves, with doodlebugs falling out of blue skies and a vast landmine crater in a neighbouring meadow.
Sonia Ritter’s production, on Jane Linz Roberts’ barn set, is warm, tender and leisurely. The simplicity of the staging allows space for the eloquence of the women’s testimony, punctuated by wartime skits and songs delivered in sweet close harmony. It’s not ground-breaking; but it’s the hidden history it reveals that impresses and inspires.
remotegoat.co.uk – June 14 2010
by Katherine Gregor
“Remembering the Land Girls’ Gift”
“He jilted us”, says Vera upon hearing the news of Winston Churchill’s death. Three other women, in different parts of the country, are also listening. “He jilted us”, repeats Vera, reminding those of us who lived through the Second World War, and telling those of us who did not, that it was not until 2008 that surviving members of the Women’s Land Army were finally decorated for their contribution to the war effort. However, this is the only accusation, the only expression of resentment. “Lilies on the Land” is not about recrimination, but celebration – the celebration of the human spirit of endurance and hope. After all, as all four women who gather at Churchill”s funeral agree, they would all do it all over again, without regret.
There is no glossy romanticism about the War years, in “Lilies on the Land”. The grinding reality of dirt, physical exhaustion, pain and privation, is conveyed so vividly by the four performers, that you feel as though you are experiencing it almost first hand. Based on letters and interviews with real-life former members of the WLA, the uncompromising energy of this production makes it clear that it is a labour of love on the part of director Sonia Ritter, and the four actresses who devised the show. It is a collage of episodes illustrating the lives of four Land Girls, who also represent four different facets of British women. Rosalind Cressy gives an earnest performance as the outspoken, academic, mannish Vera. Dorothy Lawrence breaks your heart as the vulnerable, put upon Geordie Margie. Sarah Finch is the upper class lady with a true sense of the fine and the beautiful. Ms Finch ensnares you with the subtlety and depth of her acting, but also makes you use your imagination by not giving everything away, and that is a real treat. Peggy is the all-heart Londoner. Kali Peacock imbues her character with earthiness, warmth, and displays impeccable comic timing. She is loveable from the start.
This piece is a perfect showcase for the histrionic multi-role playing talents of the Lions part company. Sonia Ritter’s direction is effervescent, and clearly highly respectful of the real-life women she presents on the stage.
Personally, I would have preferred more of a storyline, and I found the quick succession of brief episodes a little confusing, making it difficult for me, at times, to tell the four characters apart. Perhaps that is why I found myself wishing the show could be a few minutes shorter. However, this is a production that achieves exactly what it sets out to do. It is a glorious piece of theatre where heartbreak, fear and squalor are laced with humour, warmth and love. There was a great buzz of satisfaction in the audience. It also reminds us of a concept that has become almost alien in our current climate of personal entitlement – personal responsibility; and that is most refreshing.
The Londonist – June 11 2010
Lilies on the Land is what history lessons should have been like: fun, funny, enjoyable and thought-provoking without lecturing. The Lions part draw on the true stories of the Women’s Land Army who left their genteel homes to work on farms during World War Two, getting dirty, strong and independent in the process. Land Girls are brought to life with enthusiasm and little preaching: the four women on stage take the contributions from Land Girls who are still around and present them with great gusto and occasional song. We feel the physical shocks of heavy labour with them, their excitement discovering their strengths and their dismay rediscovering their vulnerabilities. It’s an enjoyable evening, and you’ll learn a little too.
Quite unexpectedly, the audience are shown just how protected women were, and how unnecessary their cocoons of niceties and primness turn out to be. Rosalind Cressy playing Vera who left her job at the bank to join a farm, wipes her hands on a rag and proudly tells us of her subscription to Farmers’ Weekly and the 88 lambs she took care of during lambing. Sarah Finch’s upper class indignation at having to pee in a field is squashed by her surprise at how little the men who eventually build her a latrine seem to know about women’s bodily functions. Dorothy Lawrence and Kali Peacock as Margie and Peggy give warm and compassionate performances too that feel very real and very funny, showing not just their growing capability for hard graft, but also the discovery of their personal courage, fortitude and a love of mischief, none of which they would have known about themselves without having joined this “forgotten” army.
Lilies on the Land is very upbeat and presents the Women’s Land Army as a joyful adventure of self-discovery for most of the women who took part. Alongside this is the unspoken, broader implication how much women achieved just by picking up a pitchfork, putting on the trousers and getting the men’s work done, as women.
Time Out – July 6 2010
by Robert Shore
Were you a member of the Land Army? If so, you won’t want to miss The Lion’s Part’s tribute to the women who dug for victory during World War II, valiantly (and usually excitedly) leaving home to take up the agricultural jobs left vacant by men as they were drafted into the military. Indeed, you may even have helped to write the script, which is based on material supplied by former Land Girls. If the answer to that initial question is ‘no’, on the other hand, but you have some feeling for British history, the changing lives of women in the middle of last century or just the changing seasons, you’ll still enjoy this handsomely staged little show directed by Sonia Ritter.
There’s a cornucopia of revealing historical detail and amusing anecdote in the four interwoven monologues, related by four representative social and class types: the tale of short-sighted cockney Peggy’s first attempt at ploughing, rendered unnecessarily perilous because she didn’t want to be seen wearing specs by a prospective boyfriend, is nicely observed and engagingly told by Kali Peacock. And the songs and music-hall-style turns with which the show is peppered are delightfully delivered and are likely to cause even those who have no personal memories of the war years to shed a nostalgic tear or two.
TNT – July 6 2010
When the men joined up, the women had to do their bit for the war effort and the Lion’s part’s enjoyable new play does an excellent job of recreating what it was like to leave behind family, friends and flushing toilets to get mucky down on the farm during World War II.
Based on letters from, and interviews with, original Land Girls, this likeable celebration of the Women’s Land Army tells the story of four women who exchanged their skirts for regulation green jumpers and khaki dungarees. No matter what their social background or where they came from (and most came from the towns and cities), they were expected to learn to plough and plant, get up at dawn and work till late to make sure that the cows were milked, the potatoes dug and the ewes safely lambed.
Upper class Poppy ditches her fashionable outfits and falls for a pilot; gay Vera, relishing the opportunity to wear trousers, finds affection from a fellow Land Girl; Margie gets a sad, solitary billet with an exploitative farmer before she’s moved to more congenial accommodation; and a rogue mouse finds its way down myopic Peggy’s ample cleavage.
Cleverly interweaving songs of the period with a wide range of experiences (both pleasant – dates and dances with Canadian servicemen, and unpleasant – the unwanted attentions of farm labourers and Italian POWs) director Sonia Ritter’s entertaining and informative production is engagingly performed and makes a well-deserved and belated tribute to the women who helped keep the country going when the doodlebugs threatened.