The more Francesca Millican-Slater revealed the contents of her century-old copy book of secrets; so the smaller Wem Town Hall seemed to become…until all 70 of us were sitting comfortably in the palm of her hand; entirely enthralled.
“My Dearest Girls – The Letters Book”, is a classic piece of intimate, one-woman theatre. With just a clutter of props and her treasured, marble-covered book of correspondence, she slowly reels us into the world of six sincere school friends – still keeping in touch as they turn twenty.
It’s a wonderful way of telling the barely touchable, off-stage story of the Great War.
The girls all attended school in Bridgnorth at the start of the century and vowed to stay friends by copying round robin letters to each other….50 of which have survived in Shropshire Archives. Fran’s first moment of genius was to spot their pulling power. She’s created a perfectly formed, high concentration, 90-minute show in which she re-enacts extracts of the letters and respectfully reads between the lines.
She has a broad smile and wears her hair in a bun. Her slightly husky, baritone voice is warm, calm and enticing and her gentle characterisations of the long-gone women she has got to know so well are beautifully observed. As she changes her shoes, so we meet them one by one.
Dorothy is a hearty hill walker from Bridgnorth; circling the stage with backpack and intent, and biking through the rain to bring solace.
Top of the form Stella is newly married in Suffolk and learning how to beat the rations by smiling at shopkeepers. Suddenly she bursts into a song that Jake Thackray would have been proud of.
Hester is now a volunteer night nurse in Kent, writing on duty and yearning for patients with more interesting injuries.
May, the Birmingham office girl, dips her toes into the canal and tries to obscure the fact that her beloved Reg is dodging the draft.
Dance teacher Nella is in Knightsbridge, loving London despite the raids (“It’s a marvel how those planes get here”) and showing rich ladies how to curtsey.
And Helen, the booted Brockton farmer’s daughter (who starred in an earlier, shorter show) cleans potatoes and brings in the harvest to a lovely Ralph McTell type song.
It’s when Helen fails to keep up the correspondence that the enormity of the distant war hits home. Her brother Jack is fighting in Palestine and eventually a tear-stained letter deeply affects all the others. But what do you write in reply?
Francesca really makes the most of her dear girls; dressing their Christmas trees, recreating their poses in family photos, and projecting their emotions way beyond pen and paper as they marry, mourn and make do.
It’s a lovely initiative from Shropshire Archives and Arts Alive and this marvellous show will be touring for the next four years; so you’re bound to be presented with the opportunity of sitting comfortably somewhere, quite soon. I recommend you take it.
For details see www.francescamillicanslater.co.uk
Photo : Tom Middleton