Megan Stodel is pleased to encounter a play from the 1950s with such a large cast of women, but Women of Twilight is too sensational to ever hit home
When the play Women of Twilight was made into a film in 1952, it became the first in British history to be awarded the new X-rated certification. It’s not pornographic. It’s not particularly violent. The shocking content that merited such censure? Most of the characters were women who had become pregnant out of wedlock.
Sylvia Rayman’s play is set in lodgings where single mothers are admitted – something sufficiently rare that the characters have little choice but to put up with the squalor, cramped conditions and regular extortion practised upon them by the landlady, Helen Allistair (played by Sally Mortemore). The story arc follows Christine (Elizabeth Donnelly), who arrives at the house shortly after giving birth to her son. Although she is appalled by her new home, she is forced to stay put until her fiancé returns from the US to marry her – until then, she is not welcome in more respectable boarding houses.
Christine becomes firm friends with Vivianne (Claire Louise Amias), the pregnant partner of a man on trial for murder. Though the play focuses on the life of these two women, Christine encounters a host of other women in similar situations, who come and go as their circumstances change. This works well for a number of reasons. Firstly, it means that the cast is large, which is one of the main things I liked about Women of Twilight; I can think of very few plays with 11 roles for women. The relatively equal importance of most of the roles meant that a number of actors had a chance to shine. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Ailsa Ilott as Rosie, a likable young woman who is susceptible to the manipulation of Mrs Allistair and her lackey Jess (Vanessa Russell) but still makes it out through her marriage. Francesca Anderson offered a refreshingly unapologetic character in Olga – she was the only one to seem uninterested in landing a man and was much more focused on friendship than romance.
The number of women on stage also emphasises how crowded the boarding house is, with three women sleeping in the basement that also serves as the common area for the lodgers. As women leave and are replaced quickly, it is perfectly clear that Mrs Allistair’s accommodation is in high demand. This serves both to suggest a lack of alternatives as well as demonstrating the constant need for such places.
However, despite the large cast there is a lack of variation in the characters and their backgrounds. It seems like most have similar stories of unreliable boyfriends and although there are clearly supposed to be class differences between the women, these aren’t reflected in much other than their accents. This makes the group and their stories unconvincing; I didn’t believe they represented the situation as it would have been. This is emphasised when one of the characters initially insists she was raped because she doesn’t want people to know that she has had consensual sex before marriage. While this highlighted the strength of the taboo around women’s sexuality, it also made it clear to me how (as far as I could tell) all the women represented had become pregnant through relationships of some sort and most had some sort of empowerment through this. All the characters are white and Sal (Emma Read-Davis), who has some sort of cognitive impairment, is a plot device rather than a person. There were certainly women’s voices that went unheard despite the opportunity to represent more diversity with so many characters.
For this reason, the play makes for odd viewing. For the most part, the characters and their conversations seem rather shallow and samey. But this is punctuated by moments of sudden intense drama. This again detracts from the play.
I am certain that it would be possible to present the real circumstances of women in this situation and tell a dramatically gripping tale. Several of the details ring true and perhaps more could have been done to develop these.
The women are obliged to pay all they have for the services rendered by Mrs Allistair and Jess. The children are neglected. The job opportunities for the women are limited while the need to have a job is pressing. There is sufficient depth in these observations to warrant a thoughtful, compelling piece.
Unfortunately, Rayman has gone over the top. The landlady is such an epitome of evil that she becomes a pantomime villain. This isn’t a relatable character; her motives are unclear and her background is close to unknown. Her lack of humanity undermines a play that seems to aspire to gritty realism. Instead of making the circumstances of the characters recognisable, it distances them, making them seem part of a fictional, far-off world.
This is a pity. It is valuable to have a play that was written in the 1950s that attempts to shine a light onto the mistreatment of single mothers at that time. It would be all the more valuable if it avoided sensationalising the issues and gave a truer picture of the everyday experiences of those who lived through it.
Women of Twilight showed at The Pleasance Islington 14-27 April.
Photos are by Tristram Kenton. Both photos show Vivianne looking into the distance with an unhappy expression, while Helen stands menacingly behind her, looking at her and resting her hand on her shoulder.