Theatre Review - These Shining Lives

The spanking new Park Theatre opens its doors with a dazzling production of Melanie Marnich’s heartbreaking play. Set in 1920s Chicago, THESE SHINING LIVES is based on a true story about an American corporation’s shameful exploitation of its female workers.

A young mother of twins, Catherine (Charity Wakefield) is delighted to be offered work with the Radium Dial Company, painting watch faces. Her hard-working husband Tom (Alec Newman) tells her it is only until he starts earning a better wage. But Catherine revels in her new found liberation and financial freedom.

She shares a table with three other women, outspoken Charlotte (Honeysuckle Weeks), practical Frances (Melanie Bond) and joker Pearl (Nathalie Carrington). Over the years, they become close friends. But unknown to them all, they are working with an invisible but lethal killer. Radium is used to make the watches glow in the dark. The women are encouraged to lick the tips of their miniature paint brushes to keep them in shape not realising that they are imbibing a highly dangerous chemical element.

The first sign something is wrong is when Catherine’s hands and clothes begin to glow in the dark. Then she starts to suffer from excruciating pain in the ankle. Her friends also struggle with various ailments, an aching jaw, bleeding, a numb arm, but the company doctor tells them not to worry and proscribes aspirin. As Catherine observes: “The definition of a company doctor is someone who takes care of the company”. When her health deteriorates and she has to take time off work, Catherine is sacked. Finally an independent doctor tells the women the truth. The radium has poisoned them. Supported by her friends, weaker by the day, Catherine begins legal proceedings against her former employer.

It’s a terrific drama, brilliantly staged. I defy anyone not to be in tears by the end. Tim Shortall’s design is gloriously simple, Rob Casey’s subtle lighting indicates a shift in setting with minimal fuss, Vic Craven’s video projection adds atmosphere and Loveday Ingram pulls it all together, directing with real panache. It’s beautifully acted and costume supervisor, Brigid Guy, deserve a special mention for her superb attention to period detail.

In Park200, Park Theatre until 9 June

Review originally published by Theatreworld