The Drowning Girls
CUE Theatre Company
Bridge House Theatre, SE20
Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson & Daniela Vlaskalic
This elegantly directed three-hander tells a horrifying true murder story with original, quirky resonance.
In 1912 to 1914, three women were drowned in their baths, in different parts of the country by the man they thought they’d married, George Joseph Smith, who was caught and hanged, had also conned several other women out of their life savings. The “Brides in the Baths” case was instrumental in driving forward the development of forensic science.
The Drowning Girls, imagines that the three dead women are a united trio cavorting, chatting and communing round a bath tub and, ingeniously mirrored on the back drop so that we can see them even when they’re facing away. Like sisters, they remember, tell their individual stories, act out scenes, compare their experiences and sing, hauntingly, the hymn “Nearer my god, to thee” a poignant version of which dominates the underpinning sound design. It’s a literally wet play, though. There’s water in the bath and a lot of climbing in and out. The cast must feel pretty cold and damp after 70 minutes.
It’s powerful, thoughtful material because it goes beyond the horror of what happened to these particular victims and reflects on a world in which unmarried women had little status and few options. A marriage offer – however dubious the proposer – promised a much brighter future and there was a lot of insular, female naivety. Sadly, of course, there are still cultures in which this is the norm so this play has topical undertones and that point is subtly reinforced by the ethnic diversity of the cast.
And what a talented cast! Yiling Yang brings mournful stillness, Anamika Srivstava innocent liveliness and Qi Chen chilling resignation. There’s a lot of multi-roling as the story unfolds, done without fuss and subtly observed vocal nuance. These actors are, marginally less convincing when they’re playing men and there are one or two moments when you think “Eh? Who are we now?” but this is a very minor point.
Ranga Jayaratne is clearly an excellent director. I’d like to see more of her work very soon and I hope very much that this play, which has only a 5-day run at The Bridge House is revived more widely as soon as possible because it’s well worth seeing.