Review: Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways at The Cruising Association, Limehouse

Before last night, my only knowledge of the boating world came from a long ago family holiday on the Norfolk Broads (and if I’m totally honest, I didn’t really learn a huge amount from that). Worse, I knew nothing at all about the Women’s Training Scheme or the so-called Idle Women, who left their comfortable homes and stepped up to take charge of the working boats during World War II. And I have a feeling I may not be the only one.

Fortunately, Alarum Theatre are setting out to change that. They’re embarking on a tour with their historic boat, Tench, and an all-female crew to mark the 75th anniversary of the Idle Women by recreating their route from London to Birmingham and back via Coventry, performing at waterside venues along the way.

The double bill consists of two solo performances by writer and storyteller Kate Saffin and poet and singer-songwriter Heather Wastie, who met on Twitter in 2016 and realised their two shows went rather well together. The first, Isobel’s War, is a fictional and often very funny depiction of the arduous training scheme through the eyes of one of the recruits, while Idle Women and Judies is a collection of poems and songs inspired by, and often directly quoting, the words of the women themselves. Both give us an insight into the hard work and less than comfortable living conditions on board – but also the friendships and sense of accomplishment that the women shared.

Though not exactly your typical night at the theatre, together the two pieces make for a simple, charming and informative evening. And though the performances are quite different in format, they have one important thing in common, and that’s the obvious affection and admiration not just for the Idle Women, but for all the women from boating families who’d been quietly doing the same work for generations before the war. The enthusiasm of both ladies, who come from boating backgrounds themselves, is infectious; even someone as averse to audience participation as I am couldn’t resist joining in with the final chorus (though I wish it hadn’t been quite so catchy – it’s a difficult one to forget once you’ve learnt it).

If you don’t already know the story of the Idle Women, Alarum’s show is a fascinating introduction. If you do, it’s an enjoyable retelling and great entertainment. But it’s also a powerful reminder of the crucial role women played in keeping the country running during the war – and let’s face it, nothing brightens a gloomy Monday like a bit of girl power.

But if it was such hard work on the boats, why were they called the Idle Women? You may well ask – but I’m not the one to answer. You’ll have to see the show to find out…

The Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways continues on the Recreating the Journey: 2017 tour – for dates and venues visit the Alarum Theatre website.

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