Rarely heard voices; how the women of St Helens provoked a performance that defined an entire year.

Nandi Bhebhe in TORCH by ANU Productions

Review: TORCH, by ANU Productions

Nervously fidgeting with a box of ink in my pocket for an hour spent in a terraced house in St Helens was not how I expected to react to ANU Productions’ latest show, TORCH. But that’s where I ended up, trying to grasp stories I had no relationship to, while trying incredibly hard not to get overwhelmed by the stories of the women and girls of St Helens through its 150 year history.

Stood in the cold glass pod of St Helens Central, waiting for the performance to start, a young black woman approached, and asked for money. 20p. She heads over to the vending machine with it and frustratedly fails to retrieve a coffee. A few moments afterwards, having turned our attentions back to waiting for the show to start, another woman approaches, frantic, fearful and with a badge around her neck. She is a case worker of some description, asking if we’ve seen a young black woman, and if we might be able to identify her.

Accompanying her outside, with a nervous look back at where the show is due to start (and a few more to make sure we’ve not been left behind by the group), I am wondering what help we could possibly be in identifying her client – do you call women needing support clients? I’m not sure. But a vulnerable woman has gone missing in St Helens, and we have to help it seems.

Now we’re being asked to get into a car, as the woman is suspected to have boarded a train which we need to catch up with. It is at this moment I realise the performance has started, already nervous, already trying to anticipate the next step – but equally doubting my current instinct and wondering if I’m actually helping someone in need right now; whether this car is simply doing what it’s saying and chasing a vulnerable and impressionable young woman (played by Nandi Bhebhe) to get her back in the care of a responsible guardian (Niamh McCann).

Anyway. We pull up to an unnumbered terraced house, with its lights off, in the hope that somehow she has made it back here.

She hasn’t, but by this point we’re invested in this story. Terrified of the fate we might hear of later that day. So we stand as the fuse box is sorted out. Until a door slams from behind me and the story takes another turn.

A war time woman (Etta Fusi), left behind, begins the rest of proceedings by separating the group. I am dragged off to a bombed bedroom, with light flooding in through fallen curtains, while a woman, full of joy, but equally struggling to contain overwhelming fear and sadness, tells me about her day and what led to it.

‘Idle women they call us,’ she laughs, frantically. They’ve been working on the canals, the women who are strong enough, able to build and maintain. Playing men’s roles while their husbands are away. Wearing their husbands’ clothes, hiding from their day-to-day selves. Her day-to-day self is a tea room hostess at the Hippodrome (we’ll get there later).

Etta Fusi in TORCH by ANU Productions

It’s not until after this, led back to the living room, that I realise more members of the audience have arrived. Have they had the same story told to them? Or is there more to this than I can understand at this moment?

So there I was, witnessing one of the most enthralling performances I’d ever seen, second guessing what was happening. Or trying to. Part of me wishes I’d asked for more of a briefing beforehand, so I knew what to expect. I could have sat through it and calmly analysed what was happening. But why on earth would I want that? Why would I want anything other than the confusing back foot I was on as a male audience member in an all-female-production. Had TORCH played out any differently for me it wouldn’t have worked.

From start to finish, my pulse was racing, reflecting the emotion of the performers – mostly fear.

Not fear like you get in response to a scary film, but fear like you get when something is about to go wholeheartedly and very personally wrong for you. The kind of fear made mostly of empathy I think.

Because I don’t understand what is going on. I have never been a wife finding a calling in the absence of a husband, while the world expects me to hold a station. I have never been a mother separated from her daughter, or a daughter separated from her mother. I have never been barred from seeing my own children, or forced to move out of my home because of the actions of the man I trust. And I have never been a woman. So I don’t understand and it fills me with a very unique nervousness.

I don’t understand what I am watching and hearing, but it seems like an untold story that I might never have the opportunity to hear again, and have certainly never heard before.

So, with the nervousness still pulsing in the very front of my head, we walk from the terraced house to the hippodrome, where the idle woman from earlier works. Her day job. We hear more about her role here, and what I suppose is the front she puts on her life. And as she leaves, we meet Theo (Sonia Hughes) Who slips in and out of character, with tea leaf readings, and stories of her meal out the other week. It brings us gently back down to earth, and means we complete the event with an open and undirected conversation.
An opportunity we embrace as an audience.

TORCH was part of St Helens 150, one of the last parts in fact. A year examining the fraught and colourful history of an industrial town, without putting anything on any pedestals. The St Helens 150 events were accompanied by the status of Borough of Culture, a new label assigned annually to the six boroughs in the Liverpool City Region. I doubt any other borough will look so critically at itself, or try to right as many wrongs.

As I sit on the train home, I take the fresh box of hp 302 printer ink out of my pocket to find the wrappings completely shredded. I’ve torn it to bits with nervous fingers throughout this immersive, encompassing, story.

images, courtesy of Heart of Glass & ANU Productions