The Beauty Parade: personal sacrifice and collective resistance reflected in art


“A hive of activity”: Kaite O’Reilly talks to Kate Lovell about her experiences writing and creating The Beauty Parade, which premiered at Wales Millennium Centre on 5 March.

Three white women in rehearsals looking at a sheet of music on a stand. One is blonde with face onscured, the other has long brown hair, the third has short brown hair and a tartan suit jacket

Left to Right: Anne Marie Piazza, Sophie Stone and Kaite O’Reilly in rehearsal for The Beauty Parade. Photo: Rhys Cozens

During a time when most in-person collaborative creative projects are on hold, it is currently a nostalgic exercise to reflect on a rehearsal period that has brought so many people into one space, coming together to create an ambitious and unique piece of art in Kaite O’Reilly’s newest creation, The Beauty Parade. It is heartening to remember what we can achieve when we do pull together – what better example of community is there than the rehearsal room.

O’Reilly has been working on The Beauty Parade for a long time: “all my life, virtually, it’s been thirty years at least, all my adult life”, she enthuses about how she has wanted to do an “all signing, all singing opera”. The Beauty Parade is a step closer to that ambition.

It was O’Reilly’s ‘adoptive’ grandmother, Molly, who provided the inspiration for the narrative of The Beauty Parade, which focuses on a group of almost-unheard-of female spies who worked on the front line during World War Two.

Molly herself “knew someone who was one of the pilots in these highly secretive, clandestine operations” and “the pilots would be told, ‘There’s a beauty parade tonight’ and what that meant was, it would be a female agent they were dropping behind enemy lines into France between 1941 and ‘44”. O’Reilly is animated as she relates that the women “were going to assist the French Resistance, in preparation for the D-Day landings. They were often involved in training the Resistance in sabotage: how do we blow up the train lines so that, when D-Day is going to happen, we can bring down trees, we can blow up the train lines, we can stop the enemy force rushing to Normandy”.

Rebecca Applin and Kaite O’Reilly. Photo: Rhys Cozens

These female spies also gathered intelligence to send back to London, and were helping to coordinate the Resistance, “providing money, providing arms, guns, explosives, arranging other parachutists coming into France, arranging the dropping of weapons. And they were basically ordinary women who had a French parent, so their French was brilliant, but they only had seven weeks training.”

This is, surely, a gift of a story for any writer: intrigue, mystery, powerful characters and high stakes. But this particular true story comes with its own issues: it was a top-secret operation, meaning that “it was classified” and the files only began to be released from the Ministry of Defence in the 1970s. There are more files that remain classified, which O’Reilly is keen to explore.

“All the agents signed the Official Secrets Act” which means the information remains classified for fifty years. None of the women were able to talk about what they were doing to their families, which in and of itself is an extraordinary feat for a woman in the 1940s.

White female actor with tied up hair in overalls

Sophie Stone in The Beauty Parade. Photo: Jorge Lizalde

There are films about famous agents, such as Odette Sansom, “who survived and became a bit of a celebrity after the war”, but O’Reilly was more interested “in the ordinary women that perhaps weren’t the super spies”.

Equally important as the narrative itself is O’Reilly’s vision and realisation of the story on stage. She describes the rehearsal room as “a hive of activity” where a typical day might involve the composer, Rebecca Applin, working with the two actor-musicians, Georgina White and Anne-Marie Piazza, with O’Reilly in the corner with Sophie Stone, transforming the written word into visual language.

O’Reilly reveals a unique aspect of her creative process for The Beauty Parade: the written musical score did not always precede the creation of the visual language in the development of the show. O’Reilly would send Stone bits of writing, they would then meet in person, often in snatched moments, out of hours, in the empty bar of a West End theatre, where Stone was performing later that evening in ‘Emilia’.  There, Stone would present her ideas for how the visual language could express O’Reilly’s words. This would be filmed, and then sent to the composer, who would compose by following the visual language. This is an excitingly original format, where the visuals lead the music, rather than the opposite, which is the usual arrangement: the visuals are a response to the music. The result is an expansive, multi-sensory show that includes projections, a visual language, spoken language, song and music.

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

To tell this story, using different storytelling devices to open up the narrative to as many different people as possible, is vitally important in an ever-divided Britain. O’Reilly wants to remind us all “of what people have done in the past to fight against the rise of the right” because “the rise of the right is happening all around us”. There are parallels between what happened in the 1930s into the 40s, and what is happening now, that O’Reilly is sharply aware of.

“It’s a reminder of the selflessness, and the humanity, and the integrity that people in the past had, and maybe they’ll inspire us because it has always astonished me the way that people went, ‘I am going to give my life for this because I believe in equality. I believe in freedom. I’m against the rise of the right. I’m against Nazi-ism’. It always humbles me that people absolutely did make the ultimate sacrifice. They went and put their own lives on the line to stop this.”

This observation, about how much of themselves people are willing to give in a time of crisis, is acutely resonant with the situation we find ourselves living through right now: though we may not be ‘at war’, we are having to show extraordinary levels of community and personal sacrifice to collectively fight against the unseen but deadly enemy that is the Covid-19 virus. It feels fitting that The Beauty Parade was able to premiere before the theatres had to close their doors, to share this story of human togetherness and resilience against a common threat to our way of living.

I, for one, am hopeful that The Beauty Parade will get another outing in more venues across the UK once the theatres are able to re-open their doors – we will need to drink in stories like this more than ever before in order to process and learn from what we will have lived through.

The Beauty Parade was performed at the Wales Millennium Centre from 5th to 14th March 2020.