Review: Harriet Walker: Forgotten Lives, by Pat Whymark, Common Ground Theatre Company, Jerwood DanceHouse, October 19

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury. - Credit: Archant

Being a working class child in Suffolk in the late 19th century did not provide the best preparation for a long and healthy life.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury.

Rehearsals of Common Ground play Harriet Walker at the Guildhall in Bury. - Credit: Archant

If you left school at 14 then you had a long and, some would say, indulgent schooling. Most youngsters started work in the factories, in the big halls or were apprenticed to tradespeople between the ages of 10 or 12.

Some agricultural workers started work at six and in rural areas the outlawed practice of sending young lads up chimneys continued – often with fatal consequences.

Life in factories was not a great deal safer and nothing was well paid.

Writer, director and musician Pat Whymark, inspired by the touching true story of London white lead factory worker Harriet Walker, has been researching the world of child labour in Suffolk during the Victorian era.

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Her discoveries have been woven into a compelling tapestry of life in Ipswich and rural Suffolk in the second half of the 19th century.

It is a world vividly brought to life by a company of supremely talented young actors drawn from all over Suffolk.

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It’s an ensemble show which is played out against an atmospheric set which had wooden platforms conjuring up the quayside at Ipswich dock, a tall brick chimney adorned with several large metal gears. There are also silver birch trees to conjure the feel of the countryside.

But, by and large, the world of 19th century Suffolk is conjured by the company of young actors who bring to life a vast array of characters and give them a voice – in a real and often touching way.

These people may be battered by the harsh realities of their world but they haven’t lost their spirit or their sense of humour.

The cast work hard to create a very believable inter-connected community of friends and extended families.

Pat Whymark as both writer and director delivers the stories with a light touch. Nothing is laboured and the characters don’t want our pity. We just need to understand that this is what the world was like for them.

She lends atmosphere through some genuine period songs and a couple of her own compositions which provide added information. Movement director Michael Platt deserves praise fort he way that the cast is used to suggest mechanical factory work and repetitive work in the fields.

Harriet Walker, portrayed in a beautifully understated way by Lorna Garside, is our guide through the lives of so many people. Harriet had to work to support her brother and father. She lasted only a year before she died of lead poisoning.

Along the way we see the stories of the girls in Prettys Corset factory in Ipswich, played by Scarlett Saunders, Florence Blackmore and Jordan Chandler and the thieving metalworkers from Ransomes played with Dickensian mischief by Tom Beattie, Toby Skelton and William Atkinson.

There are a host of other notable performances from a company which made sure that every character was a memorable individual with a story to tell rather than be a broadly drawn caricature taken from a Dickens or Thomas Hardy novel.

This is a show with strength in depth the young actors are supported by professional actors Julian Harries and Lynn Whitehead. Pat Whymark and Alfie Harries provided onstage musical accompaniment with Alfie also playing Ruben the Fagin-like head of the gang of Ransome metal thieves.

It’s a complex and involving story which deserves a far larger audience. It’s made all the more involving by being set in places we know albeit in a different time.

A wonderfully informative and hugely entertaining evening.

Andrew Clarke

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