Story by Barry Edwards, Director of Optik
“No one seems to have heard of her, and she only gets a small mention in one or two books on the period. But upon investigation it is clear that Gertrude Jennings played a very important role in the women’s’ theatre movement in the early part of the 20th century. She had the sheer guts and determination to take a theatre company to France to entertain the troops there during the First World War.
“Gertrude Jennings lived in South West London (The Boltons) and began her theatre career as an actress before taking up her pen to write plays. She wrote many one-act comedies, some short enough to be sketches rather than plays, but all of them small masterpieces of English farce and social satire.
“Her plays are very entertaining, and were considered at the time hilarious – though the war itself plays little or no part in their content. Instead, they are based firmly on everyday life – in all its absurd normality. Audiences today will recognise the situations she writes about – from housing crisis to encounter with the super-rich. Her plays feature people under pressure, usually from conflict or a situation that has gotten out of hand, often chaotically so. As the tension and the chaos mounts the niceties of social politeness start to break down and the characters speak and behave in ways that make an awkward situation turn into a comically self-inflicted crisis.
“This is theatre written a hundred years ago, and it is as funny and as acutely observed as any modern sit-com or political comedy. Jennings is a fantastic wordsmith, so much so that Sally Lewis, responsible for the marketing of the Optik’s Gertrude Jennings production, has chosen to focus on her words – with promotional posters featuring lines from the Jennings plays.
“These could be called ‘lost’ plays – left to gather dust – but in another way they are also ‘new’ plays. They are not directed as historical curiosities – quite the opposite – they are being performed as exciting ‘new’ pieces of theatre that have lots that is relevant to say today. One of the most important things that they communicate – and it may seem strange to say this given that they were written around the time of WWI – is a powerful sense of optimism and the human spirit. Even though her characters argue, bicker and quarrel; they also fall in love, and believe in themselves come what may – especially the women. In fact these plays feature strong and resilient roles for women that would challenge many plays written today.
Gertrude Jennings has been a real find and real joy to direct, and – as last year’s production of two of her plays showed – she knows exactly how to hook her audience and take them with her.”
The Gertrude Jennings double bill of Five Birds in a Cage + The New Poor will run from 13th – 17th October at SS Phillip + James Church.