Matchgirls musical strikes the right note

Southwick Opera's The Matchgirls, left to right, Collette Dawes, Ben Cassan, Christina Manchester, Su Galleymore, Roy Riggs and David Aitchison S43666H14
Southwick Opera's The Matchgirls, left to right, Collette Dawes, Ben Cassan, Christina Manchester, Su Galleymore, Roy Riggs and David Aitchison S43666H14

THE story of a dark and difficult time for women in the East End formed the basis for a surprisingly upbeat musical at the Barn Theatre.

Southwick Opera gave a moving performance of The Matchgirls, written by Bill Owen to tell the story of the women’s strike at a London factory in 1888.

Interwoven into the tale of the Bryant and May workers and the terrible conditions they endured was a beautiful love story.

Collette Dawes as Kate and Ben Cassan as Joe gave a touching portrayal of the pair who had been together since children.

Dominating the stage as the feisty Kate, Collette brought strength to the part, contrasting well with Ben as the docker with problems of his own.

They performed a particularly poignant duet, Something About You. Later on, in their song Comes a Time, there was a sense Collette was holding back the full strength of her voice to blend better with Ben’s softer tones, which held the quiet moment.

There were some lively, well-timed dance numbers, added to by Su Galleymore as Polly, a rather cheeky matchgirl who enjoyed keeping her men guessing.

The song ’Atfu of ’ope, led by Alison Barak as Mrs Purkiss, was great fun with some clever moves, as was Cockney Sparrers, at the start of Act Two.

There were darker moments too, like when Maggie, played by Andrea Jones, was attacked by Scottish strike breakers, and when Winnie, played by Kimberley Pulling, lost her baby after the joy of her marriage to Bert, played by Clive Connor.

Christina Manchester was impressive in the role of Annie Besant, the social activist who helped the matchgirls and gave them courage to fight for their rights.

The timbre of her soprano voice stood out in numbers like Dear Lady and I Long to See the Day. Christina also enabled his to see how Annie stayed strong, gradually earning the matchgirls’ trust despite them at first seeing her as a busybody who knew nothing of their world.

Roy Riggs was a little bumbling as George Bernard Shaw and although the fact he was Irish was mentioned in his lines, he did not have a hint of an Irish accent.

The set was kept simple, which was effective, with a well-placed string of washing or bunting enough to demonstrate the placing of the scene.

The lighting was good in the main, although the long overture meant we were sitting in the dark a little too long before the curtain finally went up.

The finale and curtain call gave us a lively rendition of some of the best of the songs from the musical and left us with a true feeling of the traditional East End.

The next Southwick Opera show, in May 2015, celebrates the 50th anniversary.