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Drowning in a gripping drama

Yvonne Way, left, Janet Davies and Victoria Ross portray Alice, Margaret and Bessie – three brides, drowned in their bathtub by the man who professed to love them. PHOTOS/CAROL BUCK

ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL

An engrossing tale of seduction and murder, some simple clawed bathtubs, bedraggled wedding gowns, puddles all over the stage, and three spectacular acting performances.

Together, these things combine to form a haunting, darkly funny and deeply affecting piece of theatre – one of the best I have seen in Wairarapa.

The latest offering from Masterton Theatre Company is The Drowning Girls, inspired by the real-life murder of three women in early 20th century England.

Dubbed “The Brides In The Bath”, Beatrice “Bessie” Mundy, Alice Burnham and Margaret Lofty were all found dead in their bathtub, showing no signs of struggle or injury, within three years of one another.

All three women met their fate at the hands of the man who professed to love them: George Joseph Smith, a serial fraudster and bigamist, eventually convicted of their murders in a sensational trial in 1915.

In the play, his victims get the chance to tell their story: their ghosts interact with one another, musing on the events leading up to their murders and the societal conventions of the time that, essentially, signed their death warrant.

Directed by Richard Brooks, starring three of the region’s most experienced theatre actors, and impeccably staged, MTC’s The Drowning Girls is completely enthralling – leaving you shaken, unsettled, yet hungry for more.

The play begins with Bessie [Victoria Ross], Alice [Yvonne Way] and Margaret [Janet Davies] awakening and emerging from three half-full bathtubs – in a surreal, waterlogged type of Purgatory.

The brides then change into their wedding dresses, veils and “silk” stockings, and share their doomed love stories with Smith: whirlwind courtship and hasty proposal, drab registry office wedding, transfer of all assets to new husband [“it was what you did”], visits to the insurance man, cruel gaslighting, and watery demise.

Back in Edwardian Britain, Smith’s victims were considered “past marriageable age” and had a significant amount of money – easy pickings for a skilled con-man like Smith.

Aside from those bare-bones, history doesn’t tell us much about Bessie, Alice and Margaret – but here, their actors do a marvellous job of bringing three long-dead women to life and capturing their individual personalities.

Ross portrays Bessie as a woman with dreams of romance, family, and happy-ever-afters – bringing both guileless naivete and beautiful, earnest sincerity to the role.

Bessie is a relatable character for many, making Ross’ raw emotion when everything crumbles around her even more palpable.

Way plays Alice with pluck and vitality: infusing her character with almost manic energy, crackling with excitement as she plans her wedding, and simmering with regret and anger when the blinders come off.

Davies gives a quieter, more understated, but no less affecting performance as Margaret – portraying a woman with wistful daydreams, yet resigned to her fate, with warmth and vulnerability.

The cast also portrays a variety of other characters in the brides’ story – 20 cameo roles in total.

As well as Smith, portrayed as both a comical and icy villain, the actors get to show off their comedic chops as stammering insurance clerks, ham-fisted doctors, gossipy [yet astute] landladies, and blustering police officers.

The Drowning Girls is not an easy feat for any actor – not only for the grim subject matter and multiple roles, but its sheer physicality.

The actors spend the best part of 80 minutes climbing in and out of bathtubs, getting doused with water, mopping up puddles, and handling sodden props [produced from the bathtubs] – all while in soaking wet 1910s bridal outfits.

Yet, the cast all coped brilliantly, and disappeared with ease into every one of their roles.

A key theme touched on in The Drowning Girls is the relentless pressure on women at the time to marry – or else face destitution or, worse, spinsterhood and social rejection.

Outside marriage, women had little worth and little chance of survival – so, is it any wonder they fell so readily into Smith’s arms?

In a modern world still so cruel to women, it was gratifying to see Bessie, Alice and Margaret [who all deserved so much better] be given their own voice – even if only on a stage in provincial New Zealand.

If you’re a fan of ghost stories, history, true crime, and compelling theatre, you won’t want to miss this one.

A big congratulations to the cast and crew of The Drowning Girls – absolutely superb.

  • The Drowning Girls plays at Harlequin Theatre Thursday, May 27 to Saturday, May 29 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Masterton i-SITE or at www.iticket.co.nz

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