Vital Xposure: ‘The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence’

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Vital Xposure sets out to produce cutting edge theatre that celebrates hidden voices with extraordinary stories to tell. In doing so The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence follows on from the company’s 2011-2013 production The Knitting Circle, which evolved out of research into the testimonies of women locked away in long-stay institutions. Review by Sophie Partridge.

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I first heard of Dorothy Lawrence last year, when ITV aired its docu-drama, The Great War: The People’s Story, so was keen to see this play, arriving in the performance space via a dodgy lift but with the assistance of very helpful ushers at The Pleasance.

Dorothy, a young journalist for The Telegraph in 1915, `cycled to the frontline in France to become an under-cover war correspondent. She revealed her gender apparently after two weeks active service in the trenches, having been aided and abetted by two soldier pals. The rest of her life was spent much in destitution and incarcerated within asylums. There are parallels with the more famous Jean d’Arc but at least Dorothy wasn’t put to the flame…

Vital Xposure’s piece about Dorothy’s disappearance tells the story slightly differently but with much authenticity. Always a positive feature of their work, there is singing, banter, incorporated BSL and captioning. A riotous and apparently `true’ tale of chopped sausages is told by one of the soldiers!

With visuals by Caglar Kimyoncu, a male and female character are projected between the `action’ onto the set, signing the narrative whilst various war-time songs are played; songs I know from my childhood from my Dad remembering his! Not using BSL myself, I wasn’t clear whether previous scenes were being signed, or forth-coming ones but it added an interesting layer of access.

Feeling ever so slightly clunky at start, pace could perhaps have benefitted from being more up-tempo but as the piece progressed, rhythm was found. The only scene I struggled with was what felt to me, forced comedy when the officer is most uncomfortably confronted with Dorothy.

Directed by Paulette Randall and written by Julie McNamara, the strong cast were Gareth Turkington, Simon Balcon, Matthew Gurney, Becky Allen, with Penelope Freeman playing both the younger and mature Dorothy.  I found the characters of Mae and Monique played by Suni La, the most interesting as they presented both conflict and support for Dorothy.

Although Sapper Smithy mucks in well with her male counterparts, she takes the moral high ground with local brothel Madam Monique. Dorothy’s English, white and upper class upbringing come to the fore when it’s Monique that first discovers her true identity, even though Dorothy is dependent on her at this point, not to be given away.

For me, this sub-text of `(woman) know your place’, who is allowed to challenge this, as well as when and how, was at the heart of all. This is subverted when, years later, Dorothy recognises Mae to be an ally as a nurse in the Facility. Although back firmly on British soil, Dorothy is still fighting the war, with her writings of experience in the trenches being suppressed. After the betrayal of one of her fellow soldiers back in France years before, she still does not only not `know’ her place but is also denied that which she tried to create for herself.

I enjoyed Disappearance; call me old fashioned but for me, you can’t beat story-telling with characters and song.

The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence continues its tour to London, Ipswich and Salisbury until 8 October. Please click on this link for details of listings.

Please click on this link to read an interview with Julie McNamara talking about her bid to tell the untold stories of patients and staff from long-stay institutions.

Please click on this link to read an interview with writer Julie McNamara and director Paulette Randall on thepublicreviews.com