Review: Radium Girls
There’s a telling moment in Radium Girls when the lawyer Edward Marley (Tom Canavan) turns to the victim of the radium poisoning Grace Fryer (Ellie Jack) that it’s all her fault. Such is the twisted world of the legal blame game as employers try to wriggle out of their responsibilities when the work conditions kill the workers. We think of Chernobyl or Bhopal or asbestosis where the victims are only valued by the employers and their lawyers when the scandal is exposed by the press.
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School’s production of D W Gregory’s 2000 play about the poisoning of female factory workers at the United States Radium Corporation in New Jersey in the early 20th century was a well told drama directed with precision by Nel Crouch. Radium was being used to paint luminous clock and watch faces along with other domestic and military items – and to apply tiny amounts the workers used fine sable brushes to paint exact amounts – but would lick the brushes to gain a fine tip as you do with water colour painting. The resulting radiation poisoning soon led to illness and death – a story played out in this socio-economic-political drama where profits were put above health – in the round in the Weston Studio at Bristol Old Vic.
The principal characters gave polished and committed performances, supported by a large ensemble cast where the East Coast accents never faltered. Protagonist Grace Fryer (an excellent Ellie Jack) forces the story on from her beginnings as excited fiancé saving up for her wedding to a mere shadow as she battles her case in court. A journey of decline in which she sinks, is conflicted and fights eventually experiencing a tragic redemption. Her boyfriend Tom Krieder was given a believable persona by Kurtis Thompson as he changed from enthusiastic lover in denial to a young man who hedges his bets and seeks a new relationship.
Grace’s unsupportive mum who only sees dollar signs was played brilliantly by Sumah Ebele with her unempathetic expressions and cold hard stares. Ellie Jack was given strong support from Grace’s work colleagues in Lucy Pascoe as Kathryn Schaub, Louise O’Dowd as Irene Rudolph and Georgia Cudby as their supervisor. There’s a number of themes that combine to give the drama power and potency. Compliance is something that still prevents workers from complaining and whistle blowers fearing the sack. Grace admits that she always did what she was told believing what she was told was the truth. Faced with the dark reality of the absurdity of this attitude engraved into her soul beginning at home, then school and finally work it’s a moment we can all identify with.
Grace came up against formidable opposition in the form the company’s misogynist management and their lawyers who tried to silence hers and her colleagues concerns with money and non-disclosure agreements – something still current practice today. Tom Canavan gave a stunning portrayal as the lawyer Edward Markley intent on grinding down the litigating workers in court while Conor Doran as the firm’s boss wouldn’t have been out of place in The Sting or The Great Gatsby with his easy New Jersey style and accent. His wife Diane was given the difficult role of supportive partner and doubting mother by an energised and wonderfully expressive Assa Kanoute as she realises their wealthy lifestyle could have been built on an industrial crime. Another candidate for a pre-war film noir role with his suits, haircut and general Roaring Twenties style era was the on form Christopher Williams as Charlie Lee – the lieutenant to Arthur Roeder.
It’s based on a true story in which the first symptoms were spotted by the girls’ dentist who picked up on the swollen gums and mouth infections with a basic examination. In this play the dentist was played by Archie Fisher who doubled up as the luminous paint inventor Dr Von Sochocky and sauntered on stage in another scene as a rather jaunty looking cattle rancher and suitor to the ailing Grace. A gift for the nerdy, the serious and the comic.
A neat device of stage craft was made by the director of the use of microphones for the media announcing in sensational terms the fight of the girls for justice with Gaia Ashwood and Holly Hawgood enjoying themselves in lifting the mood as the reporters. And Kate Cartwright as Katherine Wiley as consumer champion and executive director of the influential and eventually powerful New Jersey Consumer’s League gave an appropriately assertive performance as Grace’s advocate.
As mentioned, the accents held up throughout – that’s a tough call in a long play – but also the body language of the cast all played bit parts and walk-ons. A board room scene where the management discuss how to buy off the victims had female actors playing male executives – body language and attitude convinced and our disbelief was suspended.
Special note for the costumes supervised by Arthur Wyatt, with milliners Rosie Gayner, Ava Harker, Bessy Mo and Lasya Purhoit ensuring period detail was followed with some stylish cloche hats, berets, and even a turban. The costume makers of Bethany Boldero, Shanice Dacres, Elle Duncan and Gracie Green also excelled themselves – with more accurate details such as asymmetrical drop pleated skirts cut on the bias and a proliferation of cardigans and the classic trench coat.
With swift transitions from scene to scene Angela Davies’ stage designs kept it simple with action played in the round with a succession of chairs and tables the main props. Willow Digweed’s lighting and Chris Monk’s sound combined to make the actors the prime focus in a story of workers taking on big money interests at a huge personal cost. Gripping from the off, played at pace in another superb production by the BOVTS and a story which resonates in today’s society where worker exploitation hasn’t gone away.
The play runs to Friday, December 2nd, 2022
Tickets and more at https://www.oldvic.ac.uk/events-shows/radium-girls/
For more on the theatre school visit https://www.oldvic.ac.uk/
New Jersey, mid 1900s. Business is booming at the United States Radium Corporation. The company’s ability to meet the growing demand for painting luminescent dials onto watches is music to owner Arthur Roeder’s ears – and why wouldn’t it be with pioneering physicist Marie Curie encouraging radium into the mainstream?
Meanwhile on the factory floor, it’s a different story. Painters Grace, Irene and Kathryn are noticing disturbing changes in the women working alongside them. Deaths are hastily explained away; but media interest is building and soon enough, many injustices are uncovered.
What unfolds is a fast-paced and shocking exploration into the workers behind a historical sensation, which impacted labour rights and health physics – but at what cost? Written with warmth, humour and dignity, Radium Girls is an unflinching tribute to the women racing against time.
Suitable for ages 11+
Produced by special arrangement with The Dramatic Publishing Company of Woodstock, Illinois