The latest BGT (Berliner Grund Theater) production to feature a primarily female cast, We Happy Few, follows the travails of a theatrical troupe in England during WWII. It is based on the story of the Osiris Players, England’s first professional all-woman theatre company that specialised in presenting Shakespeare to schools.
It is a real ensemble piece. Kim Birel, who plays Rosalind, says that many of the cast were familiar with each other from the BGT production of June Lowry’s original play about the women in Charles Dickens’ life The Best of Men, The Worst of Men. “I think we are a very good gang, all of us together. But I feel like it's challenging to do an ensemble piece, because you're always on stage…you always have to react to everything. So it's different than when you have a one-to-one scene.”
“It's a very different intensity, to be able to maintain that focus and not kind of zone out,” says Rachel Lloyd, who plays Ivy. “You’re constantly having to be present.”
Kim’s character’s mother, Helen (played by Helena O’Hare) is a boozy, embittered actress who has what Kim calls a “strained” relationship with her daughter. “On the one hand, she wanted Rosalind to become everything she wasn’t. But on the other hand, she’s jealous.” The feeling of resentment, coupled with the hints in the text that Rosalind’s parents had a very problematic relationship, Kim found difficult to imagine. “It’s something that, thank God, I have not experienced at home.”
Being able to do theatre and dance, you’re finding that semblance of normal again.
Trying to find the depth of frustration and contempt that Rosalind has been a real challenge for Kim. “I feel like that’s where I can still build up the emotion,” she explains with five weeks still to go until showtime. Rosalind is also, says director Tony Kingston, the straight person to Helen’s funny lines. “She gets all the fun, nasty jabs. But they’re at Rosalind’s expense,” he explains.
The character of Ivy also presented a challenge of a very different kind to Rachel. As the girlfriend of Joseph, the son of another member of the theatrical troupe, Ivy is an outsider who gets press-ganged into joining the company when it is discovered that she is a fantastic singer.
“I've done theatre my whole life,” Rachel says. “So playing a character who doesn’t really want to do it…I get to play with it a lot, which I enjoy. But I like her character. I think she helps bring some naiveté and some points of comedic relief by way of being a horrible, horrible, horrible cook.” Rachel is an aspiring singer and has been happy to be able to perform some songs that she had wanted to do in a show for some time.
We Happy Few deals with patriarchy and the role of women at the beginning of WWII. “There is quite a nice line where one character, played by Jessica Whitely, explains that women who are not in service are classified as the unoccupied classes,” says Tony.
But the play also tackles, and perhaps even honours, the role of theatre and entertainment in times of crisis. Is this particularly relevant against the backdrop of covid? Rachel thinks so. “This pandemic came out of nowhere… in a matter of a couple days life was completely turned upside down. For me, being able to do theatre and dance, you’re finding that semblance of normal again.”
We Happy Few by BGT is on at Neimënster from 1 to 4 December at 7.30pm with an additional matinee show on 4 December at 2.30pm. Tickets available from the Neimënster website.