These Shining Lives

TheseShiningLives‘These Shining Lives’ at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park. May 18th, 2013

“The definition of a company doctor is a doctor who takes care of the company”

‘These Shining Lives’ is an unusual play to launch the inaugural season of the new Park Theatre. The timing of this production comes in the wake of  the deaths of workers caught in the fire in the garment district of Dhaka Ashulia in November, 2012. It made public one of Bangladeshi’s best secrets: scandalous wages, deathly conditions, and the union-blocking legal code that help keep one of the world’s largest textile communities enslaved by savage corporate profiteering.

Similarly, This Shining Lives exposes the tragedy of exploited female office workers in the 1930s, who worked in a Chicago watch-maker’s sweatshop in the 1920s, delicately apply radium-soaked treatment that would make the dials glow in the dark. By licking the tip of the paintbrush, they made a fine point.  Gradually, the girls realise the process of ingestion is poisoning them despite being told otherwise.  Through the true story of one victim, Catherine Donohue and her colleagues, the play tracks her campaign to right this wrong, despite suffering bone cancer and necrosis of the jaw.

Charity Wakefield( as Kate)) successfully conveys the combined naivety in the excitement of the opportunities newly available to women in the world of the roaring twenties with tradtional expectations. The tension that arises from Catherine’s vow to make more money than her husband, instead of staying home with her young children, is part of the changing culture of the time. In contrast is the brash yet humane worker, Charlotte,  deftly portrayed by Honeysuckle Weeks.

In part, Shining Lives is a morality piece about the workplace ethics at the Radium Dial Company Overall, the focus is on the camaraderie of the girls and their decline is sensitively depicted as they start to sicken to the moment Catherine wins her lawsuit in 1938, and  dies soon afterwards.

Yes, there is an element of predictability of the outcome as Shakespeare gives us in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but this does not detract from the final tragedy of Loveday Ingram’s production. True the thrust is at times over-sentimental, but I loved its heart-warming sincerity and that brought tears to my eyes. Park Theatre’s intimate venue serves to accentuate the tragedy.

This is a poetic production. Strong performances are complimented by Rob Casey and Tim Shortall’s simple metaphorical set projection of the Chicago skyline , and moonlight across the lake,   with the radium glow.

Even in 2013 there is no change to the continued parable of corporate greed.