Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings


Ray Lawrence as Mr Bainbridge watches Margie played by Sam Allan as she grapples with a cow's (she can't say the word) with Francesca Rees's Poppy looking on

Lillies on the Land

Grange Playhouse


Other people’s wars, seen on 24 hour news, is the only experience of conflict for most of the audience, even when we were involved with the likes of Korea and The Falklands, even Iraq, it was a long way away, somehow a detached and grim sort of reality TV to all but those with family or friends in the firing line.

War that actually involved us, as a people, a threat to our country, is beyond living memory for most, after all anyone born on the day war ended would be 78 now, and those with memories of the war - or of being a land girl - become fewer and fewer as the years rise.

So this . . . you cannot really call it a play as such . . . is as much a historical document as a fascinating piece of theatre. The Lions Part company wanted to chronicle the Women’s Land Army, so, an obscure book of poems, an old magazine and a plea in Saga magazine to former Land Girls for information later, and Lillies on the Land was born.

The Women’s Land Army was a bit of a Cinderella operation. Among the civilian population the Bevin Boys, the conscripted miners, had a good share of the limelight, the WRVS were in every black and white war film, attractive girls, or buxom happy matrons serving tea to the brave lads back from Dunkirk or off to the front, and no film involving the RAF was complete without an army of attractive airwomen pushing wooden planes around huge map tables. Meanwhile the then Princess Elizabeth driving an ambulance in the ATS got them on the front pages, but the land girls?

At their peak there were 80,000 of them, many volunteers, some conscripted, and, perhaps a sign of the times, they were paid less than men doing the same job . . . some were not paid at all by farmers who soon lost their Government supplied labour when that was discovered.

Many land girls were already living in rural areas, but a third came from London and the industrial heartlands of the Midlands and the north, girls wanting to do their bit for the war effort, and their vital contribution has been gradually recognised more and more.

It was not glamorous, its dangers were the usual hazards of agriculture rather than war, farms were hardly a priority target, and its publicity image was of attractive young girls, in glorious sunny weather, dealing with clean, golden wheat in sun baked fields.

peg and vera

Peggy, played by Tina Williams and Vera, played, studiously, by Amanda Glover

Lillies on the Land paints a rather different picture, one of mud and muck, backbreaking work, freezing cold, driving rain and long hours day after day. There is no story as such, no narrative, just a collection of episodes, composites from some 150 interviews, letters and poems.

The life of a Land Girl is told through four characters. We have Peggy, played by Tina Williams, a cockney from a big East End family. She can’t tell one end of a cow from the other, perhaps that should be udder, but she makes the best of it, always ready to muck in, and with an eye for the men.

There’s Margie from the North East, played by Sam Allan. You suspect Margie has led a somewhat sheltered life, woman of the world she is not, and everything is a big, wide-eyed surprise starting with milking cows where you have to hold a cow’s . . . words she cannot say.

Then there is Vera, played, studiously, by Amanda Glover. Vera is a more serious one, she questions things, wants answers so she can put things in what you suspect is a very ordered life with everything in its place.

And then there is Poppy, played by Francesca Rees. Poppy is attractive, confident, well groomed and on the face of it, socially somewhat of a cut above the rest. She comes from a rather well to do family, who one might say, were not enamoured by her decision to become what is a . . . farm labourer. But, she is enthusiastic, happy to join in and willing to learn, and she did get the girls a proper lav! Toilets dotted around the fields or farms are apparently not as common as trees and bushes.

Through the quartet we see the war progress from the declaration to VE Day, with the time scale given context by snatches of radio broadcasts.

Along the way there are laughs, and a little heartbreak. There is the girl trying to save the crashed pilot, both killed when the aircraft exploded; the fatal accident when a car rolled into the path of a train; the bedroom door that had to be locked each night to keep the amorous, or far more likely, lecherous farmer out; the PoW whose predatory ardour was dampened with a bucket of water; cutting down weeds in a five acre field with just a bill hook; and then the rats and mice, rain and cold.

There were laughs, extremely short-sighted Peggy’s vanity for example, when she took her glasses off to look more attractive to a farm hand while she was ploughing – straight was not part of the description of the result.

There was triumph, Peggy again, who arrived home late and alone, at night, and ended up delivered a calf in a difficult birth.

There was the excitement of dances . . . with men! And the arrival of the Americans with chocolate, nylons, food, money . . . and men!

And there was sadness, Poppy’s airman boyfriend who swooped low over the fields at the start of every mission to let her know he was off and then always phoned, whatever time he returned, to tell her he was safe – until the day when there was no phone call.

There is no story, no narrative, the four characters interact at times, but only as other people in someone else’s story, they are all unknown to each, and indeed are all invented characters, the voices of many Land Girls.

The story opens in 1939 and ends in 1945 but it is not a war story, it is a story of real life in a war. Interspersed among the recollections are songs and music of the time including Run Rabbit Run, The White Cliffs of Dover, Wish Me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, When this Lousy War Is Over and ending with We’ll Meet Again.

Popping up from time to time we have Ray Lawrence, a sort of Everyman as station master, universal farmer Bainbridge and, a darker role, as the famer who wouldn’t pay.

The four Land Girls are superb, they manage a huge range of emotions and despite no narrative or thread to follow, create a theatrical piece which flows along gently with its collection of stories and thoughts, and you start to feel for and understand the characters, even if they an invention, a device to tell a host of experiences. hey have become people.

It all takes place on a bucolic set designed by director Rachel Waters and the result is a lovely evening touching on nostalgia for some, a neighbour as I was growing up had been a Land Girl and memories of the war were still fresh. For a younger audience it is a warm and wonderful insight into the sacrifices needed and the deprivations of war and the spirit needed to survive. The girls will be milking, ploughing and mucking out to 25-11-23.

Roger Clarke


Grange Playhouse

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