In a ramshackle house on the brink of the Western Front, a young woman cowers on the floor, shaking and vomiting. Her Madame tuts and turns away. “I can’t run a business with damaged goods, can I?”
This is the cold reality of life in a warzone, where human bodies are treated as army commodities and danger lurks in the most unexpected of places. However, despite its dealings with the gritty truths of patriarchy and exploitation in war, what endures through The House Behind The Lines is the power of human resilience.
This is a play which speaks out for silenced women.
This debut production from Buglight Theatre follows the blossoming friendship between two French sex workers, Paulette and Chantal, as they do business with British soldiers on the front line. Thrown by circumstance and desperation into a brothel by the Somme, the women’s lives fall under the meticulous, sometimes brutal control of the British Army. Far from romantic notions of fallen heroes and grieving wives, The House Behind The Lines deals with the forgotten stories of the “mademoiselles” who picked up the pieces of traumatised soldiers. This is a play which speaks out for silenced women, and it does so to superb effect.
Unwavering in its portrayal of the pitfalls of sex work, the play confronts the audience with all manner of dangers, from the harrowing fallout of Paulette’s backstreet abortion to Chantal’s terror at the prospect of her true occupation being discovered. Throughout, the very real threat of venereal disease hangs unambiguously in the air. Even in more light-hearted moments, we never lose our anxiety over the women’s safety.
Perhaps Buglight Theatre’s most impressive accomplishment, then, is the vivacity with which Keeley Lane and Kimberly Hart-Simpson bring their characters to life. The company collaborated with modern day sex workers in Leeds to devise the play, and this research really shines through in the compassion of the piece. The sex workers are not cartoon “whores”, nor are they one-dimensional battered victims. They are real women with their own dreams and rage, whose laughter almost drowns out the gunshots around them.
Slightly less relatable is Edith, the brothel-owner, whose character feels a little caricatured as she gloats over her position with the glee of a Disney villain. However, as events unfold, we come to realise that Edith represents something much more than the unethical practices of one woman. Her zealous nationalism, which obliterates any sense of right and wrong, hits uncomfortably close to the bone in post-Brexit Britain.
Their laughter almost drowns out the gunshots around them.
The staging works exquisitely in Sheffield’s beautiful Lantern Theatre; a few sparse beams and scattered ammmo boxes set the women up in their own trench, serving as a constant reminder that war is raging both outside and within. Two male actors provide a beautifully haunting soundscape to the piece, but their characters are nameless. This is not their story.
Buglight Theatre has triumphed with this moving production, which gives a much-deserved voice to some of the First World War’s forgotten victims. The Yorkshire-based company are sure to be a national hit before long, as they take on some of our society’s most pressing issues and prove that theatre really can make a difference.
Read our interview with Keeley Lane, the Artistic Director and co-founder of the company here.