Lion & Unicorn Theatre, London
In spite of the official neutrality of Ireland during the Second World War, many young Irish men and women went to live in war-torn Britain during this time. Their reasons were straightforward: food at home was scarce and expensive; the conscription of British personnel into military service meant there were many domestic jobs that needed to be filled; and at the time, wages were higher across the Irish Sea.
For some, there was a sense of adventure that came with the territory, a million miles away from the safety and predictability of rural Ireland. In What’s The Story? – which is written by Maureen Alcorn and directed by Esther Malkinson – the play is inspired by the heroism of Irish nurses during the war years and of two in particular – Mary Fleming and Aileen Turner. While not much is known about them, they both received the George Cross for rescuing a ward full of patients when their hospital was hit during an air raid. Because of their modesty, they rarely talked about it and others seldom spoke of it again. This is their story.
Stationed at Grove Park Hospital – which at the time was dedicated to palliative healthcare for TB sufferers – Aileen (Lauren Cardiff) and Mary (Jessica Kearney) witness many patients checking into hospital, but few leaving of their own accord. While Mary has taken a shine to Martin (Louis Rayneau) who is in very poor health, Aileen keeps on bumping into Bert (Alex Stephenson) whenever she has a cigarette break.
During his childhood, Bert succumbed to polio, which in later life stopped him being conscripted. As a wartime civilian, Bert spends his time writing for the local paper, trying to find anything of interest in Lewisham. At a time when stamping out careless talk is paramount (“Loose lips sinks ships”) Bert’s constant presence around the hospital is held with suspicion.
Asides from her association with him, the general disregard the Irish were held with at that time leads to closer scrutiny of Aileen. Meanwhile, it is very apparent that Mary and Martin have feelings for each other, but as a last resort the powers-that-be have authorised Martin’s infected lung to be collapsed, to give it a ‘rest’. Of course there are no guarantees that it will work…
As the “angels of Lewisham”, Cardiff and Kearney bring the nurses vividly to life. Working for several weeks without a break takes its toll on their energy and enthusiasm, but the nurses persevere regardless. For Aileen, it seems like their time at the hospital is a Sisyphean endeavour in its futility, as most of the patients lose their ‘battle’ in the end. However, as an ‘outsider’, Bert reminds her of the amazing job that she and all the other Irish nurses are doing – receiving little thanks from the powers-that-be, but there helping others every day. Kearney’s performance is the heart of the play, as Mary’s positive outlook is in sharp contrast to Aileen’s. Still a devout Catholic, Mary’s very much a ‘rule follower’, though when it comes to Martin and matters of the heart, her resolve is more ‘malleable’. She also has a habit of mentioning well-known jokes that we all know, but not remembering all the details which is very funny.
As a forgotten chapter of Anglo-Irish history, What’s The Story? is as informative as it is entertaining, and does justice to the likes of Fleming, Turner and the other Irish nurses who were there at the inception of the NHS. While the play pays homage to these selfless women, their actions are all the more remarkable when seen light of what London was really like. The defiant ‘Blitz spirit’ was widely reported in the newsreels, but what wasn’t talked about openly was the rise in crime during the blackouts – burglaries, filching off dead bodies, assaults of women, and suspicion of any ‘foreigners’. Throw in the dangers of the air raids and the tuberculosis ward itself, and that’s a heady mix for anyone to face.