The Week In Theatre: Radium Girls

Radium Girls: Bristol Old Vic Weston Studios ***

The Levelling Up agenda in the latest NPO list has been cruel to Bristol. Some great companies have been rewarded, Theatre Ad Infinitum among them but what more could a company like the Wardrobe Ensemble do to get in having over a decade turned into a company of national importance and now turning their focus into education work as well? Bristol Old Vic suffered a slight drop, Tobacco Factory Theatres standstill funding, while the likes of Action Hero, Theatre Bristol, and Travelling Light have seen their NPO status removed. While the talk in the media has been about the destruction of the arts in London, it feels like Bristol theatre is also currently licking its wounds. It may be an opportunity to go away, reconsider and rise again like a Phoenix, something the Arnolfini did with great success in 2015 after seeing its grant removed and now back in from 2023, but you wonder how much the theatrical landscape will change as new artistic regimes step into a tougher than ever financial situation for our theatres and companies.

It’s also been a challenging time for drama schools recently with the drama education sector also struggling to deliver what it needs on the funding models it’s sustaining. It feels on the brink at the moment, a time when the old models are being reconsidered. The likes of the Bristol School of Acting are delivering a thrilling range of shows with a diverse range of students while expanding the training of theatre makers, Fourth Monkey has also made Bristol a home. The illustrious BOVTS no longer holds the monopoly. But a school that has trained a who’s who of the great and the good of the British arts industry still knows how to develop and send talent out into the world, Billy Howle, currently playing Hamlet in Bristol is only one of many who has blossomed into the industry. So it is always enticing to see a new year group for the first time.

Ellie Jack and Kurtis Thomas Radium Girls Photos Craig Fuller

In the early 1920s, a number of women in a New Jersey factory suffered radiation poisoning while painting watch dials with self-luminous paint. DW Gregory’s 2000 play Radium Girls captures the dawning self-realization of these women that the jobs they had innocently gone to eventually will contribute to their illness and death. It is carefully constructed, though a little workmanlike in form, though it builds compellingly enough as the women fight back about the corporations who are trying to shut things down.

Director Nel Crouch marshals her 15-strong ensemble well, though it feels a more intimate work than its large cast size would suggest. Front and centre is Ellie Jack as Grace Fryer, who goes from a young idealist happy to be earning a crust in the post-war years to a woman old before her time, her sickness writ large on her stooped body but staying graceful, even as life and dreams seep away from her. It’s a highly accomplished performance from Jack, in her first graduation show she holds the piece together in a role that in its writing is a bit one-note, a bit too crusading hero without facets to keep the role compelling. As her antagonist, Conor Doran brings a fascinating mix of cold self-interest and desperate guilt as the full realisation of what his company has done to these women, even as he battles to keep the company from going under.

It’s a long, old-fashioned dialectic piece of work in many ways and a sense of restlessness kicks in as it runs over the two-and-a-half-hour mark. From a new set of graduating actors Lucy Pascoe as a fellow radium girl and Kurtis Thomas as her husband-to-be make their marks and are early ones to watch. You just wish the students could have been given something a bit more dynamic to demonstrate their talents with.

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