Shirtwaist Review

Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Scotia Téatro
Jane Bowie (writer)
Jane Bowie (actor)
Running time

The plush, comfortably seated Red Theatre of Summerhall, the smart new arts and Fringe venue that was the former Royal Dick Vet School, is an incongruous space to tell the tale of a New York down-and-out. Amid a whirl of old newspapers and a bin full of highly symbolic shoes ‘from before,’ the smooth tones of the Glenn Miller Orchestra playing "In the Mood" sets the WWII time frame.

Jane Bowie is the lady tramp, her herringbone coat held together with string, who delivers a monologue that at first spills with aggression to the two journalists who approached her looking for a scoop.

She relates this true story by going back to her young life in cold, damp, rural but beautiful Scotland where her family was poor but never went barefoot, her father’s adage being that you can put bread in to bare hands but put boots on bare feet and that person can work.

She tells of the hope and fear of leaving her wee country toun in Scotland on a liner to Ellis Island where the fine words on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” applied only to the healthy who had survived the horrors of travelling steerage.

When old enough, she finds work in Manhatten’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory where smoking was allowed and where the workers had to buy their own sewing machine and thread. 600 people worked over 3 floors (she was on the 9th) doing 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week and getting paid with apple pie for overtime. Well, it was America.

In March 1911, a fire in this trap full of flammable material, one useless fire escape and careless owners took the lives of 146 women including the narrator’s wee sister who was identified by her distraught Father only by the heel of her repaired boot.

Bowie has cast important light on a forgotten piece of tragic feminine working class history that exposes the cheapness of life at that time and place through a heart-wrenching and lyrical script, based on archive material, contemporary documents and eyewitness accounts. This is an arresting piece of writing performed with conviction.

Scotia Teatro is a small independent theatre company operating from near Varese, northern Italy. Dedicated to theatre as learning and communication, its founder member and director Jane Bowie writes and performs in both English and Italian, working extensively in schools and communities as both performer and drama teacher. Born in Edinburgh and brought up in Haddington, East Lothian, Jane trained in Milan in contemporary dance and movement and subsequently moved on to spoken word theatre. She specialises in narration and storytelling, having trained with well known Italian teachers and trainers including Marco Oliva of the Actors’ Studio, New York.

On a personal note, Shirtwaist at Summerhall is a particularly special event for Scotia Teatro. Jane Bowie’s father trained as a veterinary surgeon at Summerhall in its past life as the “Dick Vet”. Bringing her award-winning show to the venue in its new identity as dynamic arts centre Summerhall is a homecoming.

Show Times: 12-18 August, 12:15pm

Ticket Prices: £10 (£8)

Recommended 12+