How the Barnbow lasses are now taking centre stage

As a new play celebrates the Barnbow Canaries, Sarah Freeman meets the women bringing their story to life.

The brand new production of Barnbow Canaries by Alice Nutter sees professional actors star alongside a community chorus.
The brand new production of Barnbow Canaries by Alice Nutter sees professional actors star alongside a community chorus.

After one rehearsal for West Yorkshire Playhouse’s latest production, Trish Burnley walked off stage and allowed herself a little cry. No one saw her wipe away the tears, but the staging of Barnbow Canaries has clearly been emotitional.

Partly its because Trish, who is one of a 40-strong community chorus, has never acted before. It’s partly because the rehearsal schedule has been gruelling. However, mostly it’s because of the memories it has brought back.

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Written by former Chumbawamba member Alice Nutter, it is inspired by the explosion which ripped through the Leeds munitions during the First World War. The factory loomed large in East Leeds until its closure in 1999 and it was where Trish’s dad, Terry Rymer, worked for all of his life.

Jo Mousley and Collette ORourke in rehearsal.

“Dad died last year and while he obviously wasn’t working there at the time when the play is set, it has been quite emotional, He started at Barnbow as a joiner in 1943 and eventually became what’s known as a craftsman joiner.

“One of my abiding memories of him is on payday when he would come back on the bus to Chapel Allerton, still wearing his overalls. My sister and I would run up to meet him, desperate to know if he had bought us any sweets. He always had.”

Trish first heard about the production and the auditions for a community cast to join the core of professional actors from a member of the family who works at the theatre.

Like many of those in the chorus she had dabbled with performing in her youth - often singing at the Barnbow talent competitions - but now 64 it had been the best part of four decades since she had been in the spotlight.

Jo Mousley and Collette ORourke in rehearsal.

“Let’s say it’s been a steep learning curve. I honestly thought that we would get on stage, sing a little and then go off, but there really has been no let up. It has taken over my life. There are plants still sat in pots, which are now 10ft high which I haven’t had time to get in the ground and the dining room table is covered in papers and unopened mail.”

The main reason why Trish’s usual carefully ordered routine has been thrown out of whack is Nutter. She was approached to write the play by the Playhouse’s artistic director James Brining. While it was always going to be a professional production, with the central parts going to trained actors, he was keen that it should also feature a community cast.

Nutter was wary, but agreed on the proviso that by opening night the chorus would have to meet the same exacting standards as the main cast. To achieve that ambition it has meant long hours in the theatre’s below stairs rehearsal room.

“I know they think we’ve been hard on them, but this isn’t about getting on stage and having a bit of fun,” says Nutter. “I’ve worked with community casts before and it is rewarding, but I’ve always been clear from the outset about the standards we expect.”

Directed by Kate Wasserberg, at the heart of the play are sisters Agnes and Edith, who answer the call for more workers at the Barnbow factory. Packing munitions si repetitive, tiring work, but it also brings them new-found independence.

It’s a feeling one of the community cast knows well. Linda Lewis, who lives just a short walk from the former Barnbow site, and after a lifetime struggling auditioned for the production in the hope it might improve her life-long lack of confidence.

“Over the last few years I have been determined to get out there and face life head on,” she says. “I’ve become involved with the East Leeds radio station Chapel FM and I’ve done a little bit of singing in the chorus. I thought this would be the natural next step, but actually it’s been a huge leap of faith.

“It’s incredibly carefully choreographed, but I think what none of us in the community chorus were used to was how much it changes. One rehearsal you’re coming in from the left; the next it’s changed to the right. I guess that’s all part of the rehearsal process, but it has been a lot to take in.

“I’ve got a little crib sheet now, which I stuff in my sock, so if I do forget where I am supposed to be I can have a little look back stage. I don’t think I will be any more nervous on opening night. To me it’s the same performing in front of a couple of hundred people as it is to half a dozen.

“You know I’ve walked past the memorial to the women of Barnbow who were killed in the blast dozens of times, but until now I never realised what they went through and I just hope that we do their memories justice.”

The production runs over three weeks and by the end most of the community chorus admit they need a lie down in a very dark room.

“We were joking the other night that at least we are supposed to look absolutely exhausted,” says Trish. “Had we supposed to look glamorous I’m not sure we would have pulled it off. However, the hard work will be worth it. This is for my dad. He was a quiet man, but I know he would have been very proud of me. He always was.”

Barnbow Canaries, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to July 9. 0113 213 7700, On June 30 before the evening performance the community chorus will join with pupils from John Smeaton School at 6.15pm to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.