Kaite O’Reilly, The Beauty Parade: a tour-de-force through forgotten narratives

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Written by Kaite O’Reilly in a co-production with Wales Millenium Centre, the Beauty Parade tells the story of the ordinary women parachuted behind enemy lines in World War II through spoken English, British Sign Language and captions. It plays the Wales Millenium Centre, Cardiff, 5-14 March. Review by Yasmin Begum.

THree women, one in army outfit one playing a cello and the 3rd with her back turned to the other two

Georgina White, Anne-Marie Piazza and Sophie Stone. Photograph: Jorge Lizalde

Award-winning playwright Kaite O’Reilly’s latest work, The Beauty Parade, is a stunning and inspirational illumination of forgotten narratives and discourses on class, gender, sexuality and cultural production using Swansea, Wales and France as its backdrop.

During WWI, fluent French-speaking women were recruited from across the United Kingdom to participate in war efforts in Occupied France with la Resistance against Germany to work as spies, informants and saboteurs. The Beauty Parade was the codename given to the project.

In the examination of three characters, The Beauty Parade explores the experiences of one woman who was asked to serve in France. Sophie Stone’s performance as Officer Atkinson is captivating and mesmerizing and extraordinarily complemented by the acting, singing and music performed by the multi-talented Georgina White and Anne-Marie Piazza.

Three female actors, 1 on a raised plinth, the other two standing centre stage illuminated by stage lights. Captions are projected behind them

Georgina White, Anne-Marie Piazza and Sophie Stone in The Beauty Parade. Photograph: Jorge Lizalde

Utilising a mixture of mime and British Sign Language (along with traditional non-Deaf mediums), Stone stands on a platform as a narrator. All too often British Sign Language has been an add-on to plays without regard for the experiences of those who are Deaf: in this play, accessibility, embodiment and inclusivity are a core part of the narrative, complemented by on-stage captions.

A mixture of theatre, music and acting blend seamlessly together in this moving collaborative piece between Deaf and hearing artists. In particular, the witty, lyrical and humorous language – a hallmark of O’Reilly’s work – binds this production together in an enchanting dream-like and almost hallucinogenic expressive manner.

O’Reilly is widely known as one of the most prominent writers and dramaturgs in the country, and the high quality of this piece is thematically and philosophically in-keeping with her other works. It focuses on women (there are no men in this play). The insider/outsider dichotomy relating to disability has been removed – the common tropes associated with underrepresentation are discarded in favour of a revolution of cultural production.

Blonde women playing the piano, another in shirt and tie and one playing a cello

Georgina White, Sophie Stone and Anne-Marie Piazza in The Beauty Parade. Photograph: Jorge Lizalde

It is a phenomenal tour-de-force from O’Reilly, that seamlessly blends under-examined history and mainstream conversations on disability into the theatre in ways that circumnavigate hamfisted efforts at, seemingly, the articulation of both – something which is no mean feat.

These women were (according to Winston Churchill) designed to “set the world ablaze,”: this is certainly something O’Reilly achieved with The Beauty Parade. Eschewing the trite sentimentality that often follows discussions on equality, diversity and gender, this piece is a deeply poetic meditation on women in history and the quotidian of the day-to-day life of women during the war.

O’Reilly has outdone herself in her homage to the women of The Beauty Parade, a piece that will, no doubt, be enduringly popular with a huge cross-section of attendees because of its wide-ranging reach and high-quality writing and acting. It is due to end over the next few days, but, hopefully, will be brought back in the near future for a larger tour of the production.