Dear Daughter at Bolton Little Theatre
Written by John Waterhouse, Directed by
Reviewed by Yvonne Cawley April 2014
Nestling in a quiet backstreet in Bolton, the Bolton Little Theatre (BLT) is a real gem. This was my first visit to this wonderfully inviting venue and was really taken with the warm friendly welcome I received. The play was being performed in the smaller of the two theatres that the BLT has to offer, with a 60 seat capacity, just 20 seats on three sides around the central stage area, giving it an extremely intimate feel and ensuring no matter where you are seated you manage to get a fabulous view.
Dear Daughter, based on the memoir written by Flora Jewsbury about a difficult adolescence in North Manchester before and during the First World War, whisked us back in time to 1910 where we are introduced to her life as a young child. We see Flora (gracefully played by Carole Bardsley) as an old woman with a constant presence on stage, guiding us gently from scene to scene in the story she so personally illustrates.
Flora’s early family life was punctuated by an alcoholic father, four brothers, and a mother trying to do the best she can with no money. When a childless couple Marian (Gemma Byrne) and Tom Crossley (Michael Loftus) offer to look after Flora for a short while to help out, Flora’s mother reluctantly agrees seeing the practical sense of it. We see the dynamics of the new household and how the internal relationships change once Flora’s presence becomes a more permanent fixture. ‘Aunt’ Marion’s attitude to Flora sees a dramatic change, and we watch as she basically uses Flora as an unpaid skivvy and dishes out regular punishments.
Emily Morley who plays Flora as a young girl, gives us a truly wonderful and believable performance, whilst Sophie Anne Elliott brings to life Flora’s mother. Caitlin Fitton, a delightful young actress plays Laura’s friend, Hilda, with real gusto and charm who then demonstrates a mean and manipulative streak as the two share more time together on Hilda’s home territory. We witness more house moves and different characters sharing Flora’s life, including an exceptionally jolly policeman, who brings a little bit of fun into Flora’s life.
Despite the constant turmoil and house moves, Flora loves school and excels in class, idolising the Headmistress who can see Flora’s potential and is always kind and praises Flora’s academic achievements. The Headmistress is played by Gemma Byrne who also plays her unloving Aunt and I found this contrast of the two characters played by the same person in different scenes a brilliant touch, allowing Gemma to show us a range of emotions. The greater importance of the church and belief in this period was an interesting reminder of how society has changed and in many ways lost a wider social network where people worked things out for themselves and between themselves. The often absurd regulations around managing children’s lives now seen a world apart from Flora’s experiences.
The war intervenes, and with emigration to Australia being thrown into the mix, the strength and resilience of this young woman becomes increasingly apparent. We witness the turmoil as poor Flora is stuck in the middle of an emotional tug-of-war between her parents wanting her back and the Aunt and Uncle wanting her to stay, seemingly without consideration for Flora’s own wishes. True love and loss are all revealed and shared during Flora’s journey.
Not an exceptional life you may say, but this story is rich with realism, a time of make-do-and-mend and an era of just getting on with life, whatever it throws at you, and of the changing dynamics of family life, however constituted. Despite having no money, Flora has aspirations to become an actress and loves reading, and though things are never easy for her, never do we really see her feel sorry for herself.
This 1 hour, 1 Act play is a nicely paced passage of one woman’s formative years, letting us glimpse her highs, lows and regrets. But despite her adversity, this play is never ‘bitter’ and you never get the feeling that Flora is telling this story to punish those who perhaps abandoned her or didn’t treat her fairly. It was a time when no one blinked an eye if parents who couldn’t afford to look after their children, sent them to live with others, in this case a childless couple. The memoirs were a gift to her daughter to complete the picture of her mother’s life. What makes this story so touching and moving is that it is a true story, based on the memoirs that Flora wrote shortly before her death in 1993, addressed to her daughter Edith Lundy (played by Emily Morley), on the understanding that it would not be read until after her death. A strangely heart-warming play given its rather harsh circumstances.
The sparse set worked well, fitting in with the era when no one had much money or belongings and the furniture moves helped punctuate the many short scenes deftly. Alastair Zyggu provided the background music on keyboards and this fitted perfectly with each scene and the era, and given that he also Directed the play, shows his true professionalism and dedication to the play. The costumes were authentic and a clever idea having pieces of written text in various sizes pinned to their outfits, depicting that they were characters in Flora’s memoirs, coming to life in front of us – a clever touch.
Apart from Carole Bardsley, playing Flora who was a constant presence on stage, all the actors played multiple roles and all credit to each and every one of them. Although this worked well and for the majority of the play it was easy to identify the characters, there was one scene involving mainly the male characters, where I did get a little confused as whether it was an uncle, brother, lodger or the father being depicted, so did think that perhaps one more male actor could have been used to help the audience. However, this does not to diminish the characterisations by Michael Loftus (playing Tom Crossley, Fred Rider, Thomas McDonald, Harry and was Stage Director) who also gave us solid performances for each, with Andrew Marsden playing Stanley, Flora’s brother, Flora’s father, Charles, Uncle Will and Alban Killick). How they managed this feat was amazing in itself. Andrew Marsden’s depiction of Alban Killick was really good. This was a brilliant performance by all, helping the audience get a great insight into one woman’s life.
The production I saw may have been the opening night, but the actors seemed to give their all, and was totally appreciated by the audience. I understand that Flora’s daughter, Edith, has arranged an outing for family and friends later in the week, which will no doubt be a really emotional night for audience and performers alike, and hope it’s as good as I witnessed.