Courier12’s revival of little-known These Shining Lives takes time to get going, but makes interesting viewing of a time when corporate recklessness knew no bounds.
I’ll be honest here: the reason I saw These Shining Lives at the Pleasance in London was possibly my most arbitrary play selection ever (other than my odd lucky dip choices at fringe festivals). I was passing though London and my sole criterion was which theatre I could reach in time after checking into my hostel at about 7.10 p.m. The Pleasance won simply because I knew how to get there and it’s one stop on the Piccadilly line. As such, I didn’t really have any expectations coming to see this, other than whiling away a couple of hours before my onward journey to Avignon. But I’m glad I saw it, because this was a very interesting piece about a forgotten chapter in history. Partly a disturbing tale of corporate greed, but for science geeks such as me, also a gobsmacking tale of scientific stupidity.
Melanie Marnish’s These Shining Lives follows the real-life case of Radium Dial, who produced high-quality watchings that glow in the dark thanks to the paint made of, err, radium. Yes, that radium, the think which Marie Curie discovered that eventually killed her. Now, I’m no expert at the history of science, but I’m pretty sure they knew enough about radioactivity back then to realise that suggesting your workers lick radium-laden paintbrushes was a bad idea. In partial defence, radium was widely seen as a wonder substance back then, but there’s already been another case about ten years previously of the “Radium Girls” (different factory, same thing happened), so you’d think someone might start to wonder, but nope, Radium Dial dig their heels in. The most staggering moment in the play was where Radium Dial stated it was all harmless because they were a high-quality factory that used pure radium. I’d normally follow that by saying that statement is “about as stupid as …”, but here I confess I’m stumped. I can’t think of anything as stupid as “it’s safe because it’s pure radium”.
This play follows the case of Catherine Donohue (Anna Marx), who fought a landmark test case against Radium Dial. Marnish chose to tell the story in chronological order, and the story begins with Catherine’s first day at the company, her instant friendship with three other women workers, and the optimism over her family’s prospects for what was, at the time, an excellently-paid job for a working-class woman. Unfortunately, one weakness over the chronological format is that it leaves very little room to keep the audience guessing – when they’re going on about radium all the time (for God’s sake, it’s even got a dangerous-sounding name), it makes the first hour’s plot very predictable. But it’s in the last 45 minutes – the devastating diagnosis they’re all dying, the public vilification of Catherine when she takes the case to court, the strain it puts on her family and the endless depths that radium dial sank to – when the play finally comes to life.
Although Kate Moore chose this play for the strong parts it gave female characters, strangely enough I found the two most interesting characters to be both men. Catherine’s husband Tom (James Barton-Steel) was an interesting character in a world that expected the man to be the breadwinner. He struggled not, it seems, because he wanted his wife in her place, but because he felt a failure that he was unable to earn enough himself. But when it becomes clear that something is wrong, poor ends up in a state of denial until the truth can no longer be hidden away. The character most in denial, however, was factory manager Rufus Reed (William Baltyn). It would have been easy to portray him as the stock villain – instead, he’s little more than a Joe Muggins doing the dirty work of someone higher up. When he’s passing on the lies concocted somewhere up the chain, you can tell he doesn’t really believe in what he’s saying himself.
This play, with its numerous scene changes, is maybe not the best option for a small studio space in the round, but Kate Moore handled this challenge well and found ways of keeping the pace flowing. It did lead to some oddities, such as a box full of radium suddenly finding itself cleared away by Tom in the next scene in the kitchen, but they avoided the scene changes dragging the play down to snail’s pace. On the whole, this is an interesting play of an interesting time, brought to life by competent cast in a faithful revival, and it’s worth a visit.
These Shining Lives runs until September 20th at the Pleasance Theatre, London.