The Gut Girls, on stage in Toronto, is “funny, philosophical and savage”
It was with a heavy heart on Inauguration Day that I sat down to watch Alumnae Theatre’s production of The Gut Girls, Sarah Daniels’ feminist play about British women who live at the top of the 20th century and the bottom of society. They hang on to a precarious livelihood and some shred of autonomy by taking jobs in the “gut sheds,” where they work in pools of blood, butchering animal carcasses and removing entrails.
The Gut Girls were the original Nasty Women: coarse, rude, fierce, and above all self-sufficient, they attempted to be the masters of their own fates, only to be cut down by a society that adheres to strict social and gender roles. The play was written in 1988 to combat Britain’s trauma from Margaret Thatcher’s election, and as the 45th American President is sworn in to the sound of mass, worldwide protests, it only appears more timely. It’s a vital work that demands to be seen today, to acknowledge the past and try to change the future.
Sixteen-year-old Annie (Claire Keating), a “fallen woman” and one-time maid, is unprepared for the stench and atmosphere on her first shift in the gutting shed. She soon makes friends with the other women, a nicely varied cast of characters with compelling personalities. Polly (Alexandra Augustine) is the joker, all gawky angles and discomfort in her own skin; Ellen (Sarah Thorpe), quietly intense, believes fiercely in social justice–determined to create a union for her fellow workers, she’s a pioneering vegetarian. Kate (Tasia Loeffler-Vulpe), young and naïve, hopes for a better life with her boyfriend and fellow employee, the sweet but dim Jim (Brendan O’Reilly), and Maggie (Kaya Bucholc), tough and independent, is at odds with her mother over her desire never to marry.
When the well-intentioned but reality-challenged Lady Helena, (Nicole Arends, channeling Maggie Smith’s Downton Abbey imperiousness) decides to visit and help the girls by creating a club-cum-finishing school for them to attend after work, the repercussions shake their world, particularly when rumours begin to spread about an upcoming mass layoff.
The play’s double, triple, and quadruple casting works better with the male roles, because, thematically, it helps to suggest that the oppressive social structures created by the patriarchy are perpetrated by and affect all the male characters. However, my guest observed that, while the women playing multiple roles did an admirable job, the switches seemed more stressful than necessary.
The cast is generally adept in differentiating all these characters, though, and their relationships are nuanced and well-defined. Augustine, in particular, had me in stitches; she does some priceless physical work, such as a moment where she is supremely awkward when trying to function in a maid’s apron. They only settle into their accents somewhere in the middle of the first act, but the thought put into different regional dialects and their class significance was very effective. In fact, I almost forgot the roles embodied by O’Reilly were played by the same actor, who garnered the loudest laughs with his extremely plummy accent as the effete and villainous Lord Edwin Tartaden.
Set design is effectively rustic and modular, with interactive scene changes helping to set the mood. My guest, a costume designer, also appreciated the accuracy of the costumes given the show’s perceived budget, but we were both taken out of the performance by the egregiously fake wigs used in the quick changes between characters.
Though occasionally more episodic than cohesive, the script is sharp and meaningful; funny, philosophical and savage. It takes solid aim at the ruling class’ desire to tame and mold the girls into socially acceptable workers that are more easily ignored; every woman gets her own moment of heartbreak when resistance meets reality. I defy you to watch and not feel galvanized to action.
After you’re done participating in the Women’s March, go see The Gut Girls. It’s a punch to the gut, and an awful, offal story that needs to be told.
- The Gut Girls plays at Alumnae Theatre (70 Berkeley Street) through February 4, 2017.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm and with Sunday matinees at 2pm.
- Tickets range from $10 to $22, with PWYC Sunday matinees, and can be purchased online or by calling the box office at 416-364-4170
Photo of Nicole Arends, Alexandra Augustine, Sarah Thorpe, Kaya Bucholc, Tassia Loeffler-Vulpe, and Claire Keating provided by the company