Review by Carly Fisher
Historical drama may not be everyone’s cup of tea when it comes to their preferred genre of theatre, however, when it is done right, as it is in Paved with Gold and Ashes, even the greatest cynic of the form would have to agree that it is extremely powerful.
Personally, I am drawn to a good historical drama, namely one that breathes life into the text through clever blocking and a crafty use of design elements, as this does, but of course, the success of a show like this rests on the shoulders of the actors. One may argue that every show does but I feel that in historical pieces, the importance of the actor creating a personable and relatable character that still authentically portrays the person and time period they are tasked with recreating, is heightened. The cast of 5 take this challenge in their stride and emerge victorious.
Julia Thurston’s script is packed to the brim with story - to fit 5 character intros and developments into a 60 minute script BEFORE the main action of the plot, is a lot to cover and yet it does not feel overwhelming or touched on too briefly. Of course, in an extended version of this play, there would be a lot more undoubtedly to discover about each of the women that we follow, however, fringe is not the platform for that. Instead, here we have a tight 60 minute show in which Thurston has given us 5 well formed female characters that history would otherwise have you forget. Giving voice to those long forgotten if not for stories like this is what makes the historical drama genre critical.
Perfectly woven through the script, the cast sing and create much of the soundscape themselves. Beyond the on stage contributions they create, they are supported by basic sound effects like the hum of sewing machines. It is however the beautiful harmonies achieved by the cast that really leave you with goosebumps. As a whole, the cast really prove their vocal prowess and, in doing so, highlight their multi-disciplinary talents.
A perfect ensemble piece, it would be hard to single out any particular actor for achievements not accomplished by the others. All 5 offer a wonderfully natural performance, strong chemistry between one another, well executed storytelling and a clear commitment to telling these stories. Each have clearly invested themselves in learning more about the history and their characters and have filled their characterisation with the knowledge that this awareness offers. Everleigh Brenner, Olivia Gaidry, Serena Lehman, Caroline Letelier and Julia Thurston are names to watch and I anticipate that we are seeing them right on the brinks of their long careers.
Some of the directorial choices could continue to be advanced with more experience (the overdramatised movement of chairs, etc), but the maturity of the piece will continue to grow with further productions of this work. I don’t know how many plays Thurston has written before this but she is a talented writer with a knack for character and I hope to see more plays, particularly of historical significance, from her pen (read laptop in 2023) in years to come.
All in all, this is a very powerful piece of theatre that took me by surprise - I hoped it would be good but, if I’m honest, I didn’t think it would be one of the strongest works I’d seen so far at the fringe. I would love to see what this work could be on a larger stage so I hope its picked up. In the meantime though, this show is a great contribution to the Theatre line up of 2023’s Edinburgh Fringe and I definitely encourage you to first see the play, but then to really consider where things stand now…historical theatre should ignite conversation as we compare the then and now. So, I urge you to ask, what are the working conditions like in my country now, especially for those in manufacturing and factory work, and what are things like for women in particular. I’d anticipate that so much has advanced since 1911 when this story takes place…and so much has not.