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 The Theatreguide.London Review

These Shining Lives
Park Theatre Spring 2013

The Park Theatre is a beautiful new building a few yards from Finsbury Park tube station, with two state-of-the-art playing spaces and an ambitious producing schedule. 

It is a very welcome addition to the Off-West End theatre scene, which makes it a bit of a shame that its first production is something of a damp squib. 

These Shining Lives, developed through several American workshop productions and given a final text by Melanie Marnich, is at heart a television docudrama or a 'Based On A True Story' American made-for-TV movie, the sort that overlays the facts with imagined scenes and characterisations for dramatic effect. 

The basic outline of this story will be known to many in the 1920s a clock company hired women to paint the glow-in-the-dark numbers on watch faces, which they did by wetting their paintbrushes in their mouths, dipping them in pure radium, and eventually dying of various cancers. 

The play follows one of them, Catherine Donohue, from her first day on the job, through being chosen to front the lawsuit for compensation, to her death just days after finally winning the case. 

That much is true. Everything else in the play is imagined, and the imagining follows the docudrama formula with little originality and not much more dramatic effect. 

Catherine is introduced as a happily married working-class housewife thrilled at the flapper-era adventure of becoming a working girl. She meets and bonds with her co-workers, who are the obligatory one-of-each of a war movie platoon the wisecracking one who will prove to have a soft heart, the jolly one who will be hiding her fears, the religious one who will be hiding hers. 

They love their work, they love their camaraderie and then they discover they're all developing mystery diseases. Catherine bravely bears up under the antagonistic media treatment of the trial and then dies beautifully. 

The story does have inherent drama and the character of Catherine is imagined and played with some sympathy, but the strictly by-the-numbers nature of the script all but destroys its effectiveness by making you feel that you've seen it all before even if you haven't. (Actually, the story is so well known that there must have been at least one made-for-TV version before now.) 

Director Loveday Ingram and her cast work admirably to bring the formulaic storytelling and characters to life, and the pleasures to be taken from this production lie almost entirely in their efforts. 

Charity Wakefield takes Catherine on a believable journey from innocent optimism to a dignified death, and Honeysuckle Weeks (the brash one), Nathalie Carrington (the jokey one) and Melanie Bond (the religious one) provide solid support, along with Alec Newman as Catherine's loving husband and David Calvitto in a number of small roles. 

Cheers to the producers and all involved in bringing this attractive new theatre to north London, and here's hoping that their future productions will be more worthy of the setting they've created.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - These Shining Lives - Park Theatre 2013   

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