The Beauty Parade came to the stage with perfect timing. A deeply affecting narrative telling the not-told-enough story of female spies sent behind the enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France to gather information, fuel subversion, and seed the ground for the Normandy landings (with an average life expectation, the play coldly tells us, of six weeks from beginning of service), it is a perfect chaser for an International Women’s Day that has felt more subdued than usual, due to other news items dominating the general discourse. In many ways, The Beauty Parade takes issue precisely with this: some items dominating public discourse more than others, and the lives and merits of unsung common people who laid their lives on the line, without being ideology-motivated or heroic, out of duty and a desire to do good, getting forgotten or sidelined in the process. Fear not, though, this production is not here to preach. The tone can be often intense – this is a moody production, from a stage setting dominated by darker tones and evocative visuals, to the often emotional music (more on which later) – but it is equally frequently ironic, tongue-in-cheek, charming, and even lighthearted.
This ability to switch between different moods and reconcile them into a whole that feels coherent and painfully human because of it has always been a trademark in the writing of Kaite O’Reilly, which stands out once again for its clarity and precision. It’s like every single word is in the right place as the story unfolds towards a poignant, hard-to-watch ending, with no excess or unnecessary trimmings. This kind of sharpness is much needed and much welcome when one chooses to tell a story such as this. Yet for all its linguistic sensitivities, The Beauty Parade is made of much more than just words. Perhaps its most outstanding trait lies in the fact that it is a narrative composed of many different languages: French and English, prose and music, sign and voice, video, writing, and movement, all come together in a narrative flow that would be incomplete without any of these elements.
This production’s greatest strength, and its greatest innovation, is precisely this. Welcome as the ongoing discourse around accessibility in theatre has been, there is too often the feeling that the accessible elements still represent an afterthought, something added after a production has come to its final form; here they are part of the fabric, woven into it in such a way that I wonder whether ‘accessibility’ is even the correct word here anymore – The Beauty Parade is not a fully captioned play, it is a play where caption, sign, movement are part of the main narration, necessary to all audience members, integral to the aesthetic and the storytelling. It’s glaringly clear that they were part of the creative process, integrated into it and made into fundamental items in its toolkit, from the get-go. The greatest success of this production, aside from its ability to endear and affect, to inspire and move, is to show accessibility not as a cumbersome necessity to be tolerated, but for what it really is – a great creative opportunity, opening a whole new range of storytelling possibilities and ways to enhance the delivery of a work. In this, if in nothing else, I truly hope this work will inspire others to tread the same path.
The success of The Beauty Parade also owes much to the performances on stage and to Rebecca Applin’s music. The latter is memorable and incisive, drawing from period influences (there is a distinctive cabaret mood injected by the music into the play) and growing ever so subtly into a crescendo that explodes on stage in the narration’s final act. The former are stunning in their versatility, with a fine-tuned use of body language, some remarkable singing performances, and a great sensitivity for both the poignant and the subtly comedic. Sophie Stone, Anne-Marie Piazza, and Georgina White give their characters a humanity both fragile and intense that makes them stand out on the backdrop of a narration from which they have too long been excluded.
It would be limiting and unfair to describe The Beauty Parade as an experiment in accessible theatre. It is a fully realised work of multi-language theatre, telling a rarely-visited story with boldness and elegance, and it’s guaranteed to make its audience smile, shed a tear, and most important of all, think.
The Beauty Parade is on at the Weston Studio, Wales Millennium Centre, until March 14th.