Not Such Quiet Girls @ Howard Assembly Rooms, Opera North

Not Such Quiet Girls was a piece of music theatre performed by an all-female cast which revealed a hidden history on the centenary of the Armistice with the stories of some of the women who served behind the front lines in World War One. Not Such Quiet Girls was a joint production between Opera North and Leeds Playhouse and it was wonderful.

The performance opened in the current day with a meeting of women, one of whom had been astonished to discover after her death that her great grandmother had been awarded the Légion d’Honneur. 

We are quickly taken back one hundred years and to our four protagonists: Harry, Tony, Mary and Pat. All from wealthy backgrounds, this piece explored the enormous and life-changing impact the war had on these women who served as ambulance drivers in France and Belgium. 

Mary has just arrived to be close to her officer fiancée and is initially repulsed by the basic and dirty environment she is living in. Her transformation to a single women poet on the verge of being published is the most dramatic of the four. Despite the privations, Pat is cherishing her time in service as it has given her “the freedom of a man”. Harry and Tony are shown having a close working and personal relationship which finally changes into something even deeper after a harrowing trench scene when they share a tender kiss and they begin a passionate and fraught love affair.  

It was staged simply; a mangled jumble of rusted and broken rubbish hung from the ceiling was an eerie echo of the chaos of the war and a shifting set of boxes was used to recreate their accommodation, the trenches and scenes that flashed to the future and family members reading letters from the front line.

The music, performed by a small band and the female Chorus of Opera North, was drawn from music of the time and the songs move from rousing and funny to very moving and anti-war and the writer Jessica Walker and the musical arranger Joseph Atkins especially chose some music from Rebecca Clarke, a neglected composer from the early twentieth century.

The chorus, dressed like the protagonists in authentic World War One uniforms, stepped in and out of the performance for the songs that punctuated the action.

Walker partly based Not Such Quiet Girls on some less well known texts written by women at the time including The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden and aspects of the real life accounts she  read were sewn into Not Such Quiet Girls. Brilliantly and authentically acted, it was a captivating night in the theatre and a haunting and thoughtful insight into how World War One changed so many women’s lives and in turn, our own lives today.

Rebecca Townesend

Featured image: Justin Slee

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