The Dovecot is an interesting conversion of the former Infirmary Street Public Baths to an exhibition and studio space. Naturally, there is much available light, which a large number of Union Jacks do little to obscure from the studio space in which ‘Elsie and Mairi Go To War’ is played.
The sense is of being in a community or parish hall. This, however, isn’t made anything of, and the audience has to work hard to imagine the Western Front while the light of a summer’s afternoon streams in. Diane Atkinson has done little to dramatise what is potentially highly dramatic material.
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Lambert Gooden-Chisholm of Chisholm were pioneering motor-cycle racers before 1914, becoming two among a number of individuals offering their nursing services on the outbreak of hostilities. Both kept diaries, now part of the Imperial War Museum’s Documents Collection, on which Atkinson based her book ‘Elsie and Mairi Go To War; Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front’- Random House 2009. Knocker and Gooden-Chisholm lived as close as they could to the front line, experiencing shelling, deprivation and the odd shining moment of humour, humanity and even romance before a gas attack finally invalided them home.
Dramatic experience indeed. The problem really is that, in spite of the best efforts of two fine actors, for too much of the time Elsie and Mairi are not allowed to speak for themselves; Atkinson reads from her own work (not always advisable, even for poets) and the effect of cutting between narration and acting jars hugely. In this case, it’s a particular pity, as the last quarter of the hour brings both Elsie and Mairi more vividly to life than the previous forty five minutes of potted reportage. The close of the piece also points to where it might more effectively have started, although the reasons for the final breach between these two clearly close friends are not made sufficiently explicit for a modern audience.
It’s deeply disappointing (one hesitates to say frustrating) to find such excellent material given so slight a frame, more so to watch two fine actors spinning what gold they can from the material they’ve been given.
4-20 August (not Sundays), 4pm