The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence
by Julie McNamara
(Audio Describers Alison Clarke and Chris Berry)
Off The Record
A deceptively simple tale by Julie McNamara and theatre company Vital Xposure educates us about the real-life First World War would-be war correspondent Dorothy Lawrence, effectively gagged from telling her journalistic exploits by the authorities.
Yet The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence at Islington's Pleasance Theatre turns into something more in an 80 minute piece which never outstays its welcome and makes evocative use of signing for hearing and non-hearing audience alike.
TLT has to admit she initially groaned when the play started with an aged Dorothy (Penelope Freeman) in a mental asylum with nurse (Suni La) - a popular clichéd literary trope for females.
Except in this case, Dorothy, whose background remains shrouded in mystery, did end up after 1925 in Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, later to become Friern Hospital where she died 39 years later.
Lawrence, aged barely 20, managed to make her way to war-torn 1915 France and for 10 days lived amongst British soldiers disguised as Sapper Denis Smith in the Royal Engineers' tunnelling corps, keeping a journal and sending back reports to the broadsheets.
The action, lit with subtlety by Crin Claxton, swaps between two time lines. The elderly patient tended by the nurse, who encourages publication of Dorothy's story while medicating her, and Dorothy's memories of the First World War trenches where some of the soldiers, represented by Sappers McCormack (Gareth Turkington) and Shura (Simon Balcon) eventually aided her deception.
Finally she is turned in. Forced into a secret no (wo)man's land when the Defence of The Realm Act (DORA) kicked in, she disappeared, re-emerging briefly with a post World War 1 bestseller before disappearing once more to enter back into the records with her 1964 death in Friern Hospital, a mental institution.
The theatre piece benefits from precise and muscular direction by Paulette Randall, bringing out every centimetre of subtext.
Equally, an expressive and compact set design for this touring production from Libby Watson evokes wartime destruction plus life in the trenches, brothels and beyond.
A tilted post supports a bookcase shaped pile of sandbags, while behind two walls lean towards each other with the windows of one serving as a screen for projections (visuals' designer Caglar Kimyoncu) of two BSL (British Sign Language) narrators.
And it's the projections of narrators Becky Allen, hair in an Edwardian bun and enveloped in a shawl, and Matthew Gurney in uniform, taking on a life of their own, which give the production its distinctive feel, often even forcing the pace, alongside carefully escalated sound effects (Theo Holloway).
The video and computer technology look forward to our time. Yet the film has the tinted colours of hand-painted silent films and postcards of the period.
There are a few weaknesses. The simple structure sometimes has the feel of a children's theatre-in-education piece until elliptical adult and political references chime with the present day and the linear timeline cards are shuffled.
The ridiculing of the bicycle, bought for £2, as a means of transport jars when bikes played a vital part in warfare even during the Second World War.
At a time when the illustrated tabloids were often trumping the broadsheets, Lawrence's relationship with broadsheet editors is never fully explored
The time shifts could also bring with them more of a visceral sense of betrayal.
The play equally leaves out the dubious background of Lawrence, possibly the illegitimate daughter of an Islington single mother or alternatively born to Warwickshire parents. Adopted by a respected Church guardian in Salisbury, she later confided to a doctor he had raped her and this may have been the trigger for her incarceration as insane.
Nevertheless, other touches focus the story in up-to-date ways. Interminable wars. The ambiguity of terms which also reflect the computer age. Songs travelling through time from First World War cynical ditties to 1960s' country and western.
The mention of licensing refers to the licensed wartime brothels, but could also indicate continual debate over press freedom and effective armed forces' licensing of the media with "embedding"
The casting and interesting costuming of an actress of Chinese origin, while having historical accuracy, could hint too at something more current.
In fact, the old adage "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story" is invoked during the play. And there are hints in this telling of Dorothy Lawrence's story of how common literary clichés, distortions of journalism and biassed archives shape official records and make 'real' stories disappear.
While at times the biography in this play feels a little thin, this is a resonant touring production opening the door to many current issues. An amber/green light.