Writer and singer Jessica Walker has spent much of her career bringing the fascinating, forgotten women’s histories of the last century to the stage. Ahead of the opening of Not Such Quiet Girls, her new play uncovering the forgotten stories of the First World War at The Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, she traces the thread back to her first solo show.
Reading through the final draft of Not Such Quiet Girls, my new play about the female ambulance drivers behind the front line in World War One, it struck me that all the historic women whose lives I’ve brought to the stage have had something in common – they have all defied the perceived norms of how a woman should behave, and most of them have paid the price for it.
In my first solo show, The Girl I Left Behind Me, writer and director Neil Bartlett and I conjured up the lost world of the male impersonators in Victorian music halls. These performers dressed in tails and sang of their love for the ladies. Some of the early male impersonators lived very wild lives – in the late 1800s Annie Hindle ‘married’ at least three women under the assumed name of Charles. And her successor Ella Wesner eloped with a gangster’s moll to Paris – her final wish only that she should be buried in her suit.
Talented actress Pat Kirkwood, whose life I reimagined in Pat Kirkwood is Angry with the late, great director Lee Blakeley, didn’t get away with her alleged indiscretions nearly as well as her historic counterparts. When persistent rumours of an affair with the Duke of Edinburgh continued to blight her career and reputation, she would not be silenced, demanding on several occasions that the Palace exonerate her. They steadfastly refused. The allegations never seemed to do Prince Philip much harm, but they also never went away, and despite Kirkwood’s best efforts, her career languished. She became known simply as the showgirl who slept with the Duke. No wonder she was angry.
All I Want is One Night, made for the Royal Exchange with Sarah Frankcom, explored the life and songs of 1930s French cabaret singer Suzy Solidor, who became known as the most painted woman in the world; she sang lesbian erotic songs, surrounded by her favourite portraits, to a rapt Parisian crowd. A major recording artist, novelist and business woman, she initially made a big success of behaving badly, until WW2 came along, and she fraternised with the German officers to keep her club open. Her reputation never recovered, and she ended her days in the South of France, alone, drinking too much whiskey, and dressed as an admiral.
The female ambulance drivers behind the front line in France couldn’t easily be accused of behaving badly – many of them won the Croix de Guerre for their outstanding bravery in the face of mortal danger. They did, however, subvert the norms of female conduct; they became the rescuers of men, dressed in mannish uniforms and often calling themselves by men’s names. Some of them formed romantic relationships with one another for the duration of service. Returning to lives of post-war domesticity, they were compelled to live out their lives as if none of it had ever happened – a pretty heavy price to pay for reintegration into the very society they had risked their lives protecting.
An Opera North and Leeds Playhouse co-production, Not Such Quiet Girls opens in the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on Thursday 29 November. For more information and to book tickets, visit operanorth.co.uk or call Box Office on 0844 848 2727.