Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways

Heather Wastie recreating iconic photo, Stourport
Kate Saffin and Heather Wastie
Photo credit: Alarum Theatre

Originally performing separately, Kate Saffin and Heather Wastie met on Twitter last year and decided they should join forces – both had devised solo shows about the ‘Idle Women’ which now form a double bill, the basis of their 2017 tour: Recreating the Journey.

In the Second World War it was all hands on deck; whether going off to fight or staying at home, the war effort quickly infiltrated everyday life. You may be aware of the Women’s Land Army, where Land Girls over 17 went to work on the farms to help with food production, but have you heard of the Women’s Training Scheme? It was basically the canal equivalent, where women learned how to work a pair of boats in order to transport cargo (including munitions and coal) around the London-Birmingham-Coventry-London circuit. Following training they were given national service badges labelled IW – this stood for Inland Waterways, but eventually led to the nickname ‘Idle Women’ thanks to Susan Woolfitt’s memoirs from her time in service, and it’s been widely used ever since.

This tour is following the route the ‘Idle Women’ themselves took, stopping off at various venues along the way – press night was held at Limehouse’s Cruising Association headquarters.

Kate Saffin (2)
Kate Saffin 
Photo credit: Alarum Theatre

The first part of the evening is Kate Saffin’s one-woman play Isobel’s War. Beginning with a woman clearing out her mother’s house, it flicks back to World War Two when she discovers her old diaries. It’s based on true accounts from the ‘Idle Women’, and tells of the challenges Isobel faces during her training days. Her husband has joined the forces, her sister is ‘the clever one’, and everyone just wants her to get pregnant – instead she turns to the waterways. After several challenging episodes, and a steep learning curve, she steadily adapts to her newly found vocation.

Saffin’s performance starts quite abruptly and without fanfare – it almost seems like she’s just talking, but she is in fact in character by that point. (It was also a shame that the Cruising Association thought it was acceptable to both audience and performer to turn the dishwasher or washing machine on just as the performance began, as it interrupted constantly and made it very difficult to concentrate on what was being said.) It is, however, a very engaging tale, interestingly told with only minimal use of props that are pulled out from a crate in the middle of the performance area. Isobel’s War is a great introduction to the ‘Idle Women’ topic, told in a very personal and relatable manner.

Heather Wastie
Heather Wastie
Photo credit: Alarum Theatre

Heather Wastie’s ‘Idle Women and Judies’ poems and songs follow the short interval, and is a short but sweet collection of rhymes that provides definite variety (and extra colour) to the evening. Wastie’s poems are ‘found’, meaning she uses other people’s words but assembles them herself to tell a story. She has even got a song in her repertoire that names as many of the ‘Idle Women’ as she possibly can! The final number encourages audience participation in the rather wordy chorus, but if you purchase the book they have onsale in the interval you have absolutely no excuse.

Wastie’s poetry recitals may benefit from being located in slightly more historic venues than a modern building all lit up inside with no atmosphere, or perhaps incorporated into a narrative; it’s often unclear when the pieces (particularly an especially short one) finish, which leaves a slightly awkward pause before the audience realises and starts to applaud. The singalong is a nice idea, but maybe giving the audience a bit less to remember (or projecting the words onto a screen where there is one) would help immeasurably – as more would feel comfortable joining in if they were absolutely confident of what they had to sing. However, it is a charming way to end an enlightening evening, especially with Wastie accompanying on accordion and in appropriate costume.

Heather Wastie, Kate Saffin nb Scorpio, Stourport
Heather Wastie and Kate Saffin 
Photo credit: Alarum Theatre

My verdict? A unique way to learn about some important, but forgotten, women in our history – tales told with passion by enthusiastic storytellers and performers.

Rating: 3*


The Idle Women runs until 5 August 2017 at various venues. Tickets are available online – further details of the tour can be found on the official website.

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