\”We are the secret moon squadrons. Dropped by moonlight to set Europe ablaze.\”
This is the tagline for ‘The Beauty Parade’ and it should be setting everyone ablaze- with excitement at this new creative collaboration and with anger and inspiration at this forgotten true story finally being told.
‘The Beauty Parade’ refers to the codename for women spies dropped behind enemy lines in World War Two. Supporting the resistance in France, their expected survival time was 6 weeks. Which is less time than the training that put them there. Fluent French-English speakers, but otherwise from previously ‘ordinary’ lives they were sent to support the war effort, but also quickly forgotten, erased from History. The Geneva convention prevented them from being part of active duty, as women, and their covert nature meant their story was hidden from history for many years. It’s a story that’s inspirational, as well as heart-breaking. Opening just after International Women’s Day, it’s a reminder of how much history is lost because it happened to a woman. And just how vital, and yet disposable women have found themselves to be in history. This piece helps reclaim some of their story, share their history, and add these women’s’ stories to the thousands already told about men in World War Two.
What is equally significant about the piece is the way the story has been told- and how it was created writer Kaite O’Reilly, composer Rebecca Applin and performer and visual language expert Sophie Stone have worked together- alongside the other two actor-musician performers Anne-Marie Piazza and Georgina White. Stone, is a Deaf performer who in this collaboration has worked alongside O’Reilly and Applin to create visual interpretations- not BSL, but a visual language that is part of the wider language of this piece, and performed by Stone alongside the music and spoken language. Along with Stone
Piazza and White both sing and accompany Applin’s haunting and beautiful music as the story unfolds.
As a piece of musical theatre- and that for any snobs out there, is a piece of theatre which uses the musical element at the heart of its storytelling, which this certainly does, it’s an innovative piece. The music underscoring the storytelling, with O’Reilly’s powerful lyrics working in seamless cohesion with both Applin’s music and the visual storytelling created by Stone. It’s telling that each element is as compelling as the other- while wanting the next instalment of spoken narrative, wanting to hear another piece of music and see Stone visually telling the story. An indication of the strength of collaboration at work, as an audience each element was equally as engaging, and each contributes to create a compelling piece of theatrical storytelling.
Through the three performers a bigger world than the one we see on stage is created, in their individual and collective ability to invoke the world of their characters. White plays Madeline, a sassy ‘Femme Fatale’ whose role in the resistance makes use of a job as a hostess. She charms and shashays her way through the piece, making it all the more affecting when in song she shows the chinks in Madeline’s armour and the woman behind the layers of alias. Piazza meanwhile plays the wide eyed and demure Lil. The ‘little mouse’ as Madeline calls her. She feels like the ‘way in’ to this world, our ordinary woman from Swansea robbed of an ordinary life. And the sweetness with which Piazza plays her is heart-warming as it becomes heart-breaking. Stone plays their instructor, and takes the role of one looking on, reflecting on what was done and the weight of responsibility that comes with that. Moving between spoken scenes and visual language, Stone offers layers to the story- there’s allusions to the coded world the women inhabit in her performance- the obvious spoken and unspoken parallels yes, but also how much more is said through her visual language. It’s a rich, complex and opens up questions about what else is said in the narrative, alluding to the remainder of the story untold. Stone is utterly compelling to watch, commanding attention and driving the narrative.
It’s an affecting and beautiful set of performances. Supported by co-direction from Kaite O’Reilly and Phillip Zarrilli, who have allowed the combination of languages to speak for themselves in a fairly simple production, which brings out the best in the performers. Aided by the design from Simon Well which takes Ash Woodwards video and captioning and creates a set of beautiful visuals for the actors to work with. The sound team of Hedd Davies, Sam Sommerfield alongside Applin’s musical direction completes the puzzle, making The Beauty Parade, pardon the pun, a thing of beauty to watch and listen to.
It is also a production in which access isn’t an add on but an artistic integration. Alongside Stone’s visual storytelling interrogating the way with think about communication in performance, there are integrated captions throughout. An access tool yes, but also artistically integrated. As echoes of what the actors say- at times imprecisely, at times reflecting more a mood than an exact translation, this works with the central idea of alias, of lies and said and unsaid (also an element of Stone’s performance). The captions are an access tool, but also an integral one, an additional layer of storytelling. And in terms of audience engagement with a piece, wouldn’t it be wonderful if listening, and reading along allowed us all to learn to ‘read’ a piece in different ways and consider how we process the information?
The Beauty Parade is no doubt a beautiful and poetic piece of writing. It’s an important piece of history told, and a voice given to those who were denied that. It’s also an important theatrical voice- challenging our notion of music in theatre, musical theatre- whichever label someone chooses for it, storytelling through song- and storytelling through everything else. A compelling set of performances, alongside moving and intricate writing, make this a piece with many layers to keep uncovering, but a story that was begging to be told.
And when the women\’s names appear at the end (above) it\’s important we all remember the importance of telling these women\’s stories, and all the forgotten narratives.
Photos: Jorge Lizalde.
The Beauty Parade is at Wales Millenium Centre until 14th March.