WHEN you think of The Great War, the immediate image that springs to mind is of the trenches, the mud, the misery and the men. Barnbow Canaries, at Ilkley Playhouse, attempts to redress the balance somewhat by portraying one of the forgotten stories of the war, that of the workers of the munitions factory, the women without whom our troops would have been unarmed.

In this World Amateur Premier, after its successful run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2016, the play portrays the women who first fight for their jobs and then fight for their lives among the dangerous and toxic work of making bombs.

Immediately setting the scene, the audience first watches original footage of war projected onto a backcloth: trenches, soldiers, marching, mud, weapons and injury before turning to scenes of women at their work making the instruments of war. As the backcloth lifts, the factory set is revealed, complete with the work benches, shell cases, exposed brick work and a yellowing sky light, stained with the sulphurous residue of the deadly work. Beautifully lit, Robin Green’s set is a stunning backdrop for the action of the play.

Woven into the fabric of the plot are stories familiar to our collective memory, no less poignant for knowing them. We recognise the determination of the women wanting to do their bit for the war effort – and to earn a decent wage. Livy Potter is strong and strident as Agnes, a feisty, unconventional woman, keen to stand up for women’s rights and demand equal pay, whilst her sister Edith, Elizabeth Rudge, is outspoken when she meets any man not doing his duty. There is a very affecting scene between her and Tom Wood, as Victor, when she willingly offers him a ‘proper goodbye’ before he sets off for the front line. Joanna Clark plays Florence, the mother whose heart strings tear as she contemplates having to let her beloved son reject his essential work exemption to travel to France. Her pain is palpable.

Swifty, played by Felicity Woodhouse with a touching and highly affecting blend of tragedy and comedy, wants to find love and isn’t without success until the unreported accident-at-work puts an end to her ambition.

This is the turning point of the play. An explosion in the highly charged factory ends the lives of many of the women and the dreams of others. This is a true story and yet a piece of little-told local history. Sensitively and precisely directed by Paul Chewins, this is an important part of story of Leeds and its part in the First World War. There are musical interludes with song and dance which counterbalance the underlining tragedy of war and serve to heighten the pathos at times.

Deeply touching, the last moments are a moving and fitting tribute to the ‘Barnbow Canaries’ and is entirely fitting as an Act of Remembrance in this centenary year. It runs at Ilkley Playhouse until 10th November.

by Becky Carter