Review by Caitlin Baird – Showbill.ca Contributor
February 10, 2017
Gut Girls is the penultimate show in the Phoenix’s 50th anniversary. Industrial lighting and flayed carcasses hang from the ceiling. Everything is dark and blood-soaked, but these ominous initial impressions do not translate into the rest of the lacklustre production, and the meathooks soon retract out of view.
Gut Girls follows a group of young working women in late Victorian England as they seek independence despite class and gender restrictions. The girls find an unwanted patron in Lady Helena, who is horrified by their gruesome job preparing animals for butcher’s windows, and hopes to improve their lives.
Written by Sarah Daniels, a British playwright infamous for advocating censorship as a radical response to violent media. Gut Girls attempts a fierce feminism. Unfortunately the script is largely expository. The plight of the characters is not shown through their experiences. The women are mouthpieces for pet issues of second wave feminism.
Post-industrial revolution England is merely a coat this show wears, not a time and place the show inhabits. This is a shame: unequal pay, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and the other struggles faced by the women are real and relevant today. This play engages on a surface level instead of being a compelling, empathetic narrative about actual people.
The script’s flaws fatally hamper the production. Conflict does not enter until the second act. Everything preceding this late narrative hook has such low stakes that even deeply emotional scenes lack resonance. This is no fault of the actors, who all try valiantly to bring depth. Many performances are underdeveloped, erring toward hysterics instead of humanity.
The male characters in particular are directed and styled as cartoonish villains. Their cruelty is hyperbolic. If one man behaved so abominably it could be believable, but when all the men are unpleasant and most are irredeemable it becomes caricature. The performances start with so much intensity that moments which should provoke a gut reaction fall flat. Scenes of violence especially need to be earned.
Baffling directorial choices give the show an amateur aesthetic. The actors do not attempt accents so the dialect sounds awkward. A lack of specific tasking leads to a lot of prop waving. Often characters deliver large portions of scenes to only one side of the audience. When blocking does attempt to utilize the thrust stage, the actors end up circling each other in a clumsy, distracting way.
The script calls for the girls to be tough and impenetrable, but every time they enter or exit the playing space they giggle and tussle and dance which shows their youth but doesn’t align with how other characters treat them or how they speak about themselves. Gillian McConnell shines as Lady Helena. She is sympathetic, complex, and confident.
While the first act is slow moving but traditionally structured, the second devolves into clusters of very short scenes and interwoven soliloquies. This means that the stage becomes littered with small set-pieces. Set design is cluttered overall, and a carpet in the second act is a trip hazard for multiple performers.
Costumes are serviceable if bland. McConnell’s Lady Helena is austere and businesslike while Mrs. Cuttle-Smythe (Rachel Myers) is soft in rather delightful puffed sleeves. Men’s suits, by contrast, are noticeably ill-fitting. The Gut Girls’ own characters are not explored through their clothing which is fairly indistinguishable from one girl to the next.
Lighting design is effective, particularly in a scene involving projection. Sound design is at turns unmemorable and obtrusive. Transitional piano often feels inappropriately cheerful and the final music is a clunky anachronism.
The Bottom Line
A stand out performance by McConnell elevates this otherwise unenjoyable production of a script lacking in structure and propulsion. Though a valuable and necessary educational exercise, Gut Girls lacks the polish promised by a mainstage presentation.