Louise Jordan’s latest touring project is No Petticoats Here, a brilliantly conceived and copiously researched one-woman show in which she shares the stories of a number of inspirational women who lived through the First World War, whose stories just demand to be told. The germ of the idea for this project came a few years back when Louise wrote a song about the 18th century New Forest smuggleress Lovey Warne. This song appeared on Louise’s 2014 album Veritas and became a favourite on her live sets, and its performance realised her passion – and talent – for bringing history to life. The following year, Louise was commissioned by Salisbury Arts Centre to write songs about local women and to deliver songwriting workshops to young singer-songwriters to enable them to explore the folk tradition and ways of bringing stories alive through song. During the course of researching likely subjects, Louise stumbled upon the dismissive phrase “we don’t want any petticoats here” in the context of women taking active roles during the First World War, and quickly became immersed in the fascinating – and largely unsung – true stories of heroic women who defied the norm and refused to just sit by while the war took its course. These stories directly inspired Louise to create a collection of songs celebrating the exploits and achievements of ten individual women and other co-workers during the First World War.
These songs have formed the basis of Louise’s No Petticoats Here CD (reviewed here), and her touring show of that name which has been doing the rounds of small community venues under the auspices of a Rural Touring network scheme. I caught up with the tour at the Neasham Reading Room, in the heart of Neasham village just outside Darlington, on 24th November. It’s a lovely small-church-hall-type venue, recently refurbished, and maintained spick and span by a justifiably proud committee of local volunteers. Event organisation and administration were efficient and exemplary; the hall was packed, and the welcome was generous. A modest sound system ensured complete and uncluttered audibility of everything Louise was doing on stage. And she cut an imposing figure, dressed for the part (emulating or paying direct tribute to one of her chosen protagonist-heroes, I suspect); yet even without the dashing visual impact of her costume, Louise commanded attention with her presentation right away, for her passion for, and knowledge of, her subject was evident from the very outset, as was her ability to take her listeners on board at once, a sensibly brief introduction setting her programme in context.
Louise’s easy, natural manner and her proven skill in (and by now considerable experience of) devising and running workshops (and time spent in secondary-school teaching) certainly stands her in good stead for this presentation, for she engaged attention and interest immediately and kept her audience both involved and captivated by the unfolding stories which form the basis for the songs. Louise gave a commendably full explanation of the background to each life-story, the copious detail therein constituting both a rich icing to the cake and a perfect appetiser for the actual performance of the songs, so I won’t overload this review of Louise’s show with a similarly high level of specific biographical reference (you can find that in Mike Davies’ review of the No Petticoats Here CD)… Suffice to say, Louise related or voiced each woman’s resolute bravery in defying convention and the entrenched society (mostly male-dominated) attitudes and preconceptions, and did so directly and powerfully.
Louise’s portraits-in-song – all original compositions – were couched in an accessible musical language embracing and employing elements of folk, classical and chanson to convey the essence and individuality of these women’s quirky, sometimes eccentric personalities. Before the start of the performance, Louise had handed out flyers incorporating some contextual information and giving the words to the choruses of three of the evening’s songs, thereby positively encouraging audience participation – which was readily, and enthusiastically, provided. Over the course of the evening, Louise demonstrated an impressive mastery of a gamut of emotions, both through the versatility of her attractive singing voice and adept instrumental self-accompaniment on guitar or piano keyboard, and the flexible, expressive economy of her songwriting. Just occasionally – albeit perhaps inevitably – the sweet tonal quality of Louise’s voice may have had the effect of shortchanging some of the darker nuances of the subject-matter, but her conviction and passion always triumphed over this aspect.
Also, Louise’s intelligent sequencing of the programme so tellingly pointed the contrasts in the women’s characters, from the winsomely jaunty waltz of Pride Of The Army to the edgy, restless setting of Vera Brittain’s intensely personal memorial poem Perhaps; the almost baroque delicacy of Mairi and Queen Of Spies to the catchy chorus song expressing the plight of the “surplus women” (who were unable to marry) and the insistent martial snare-drum tattoo of work-song Toil, Women, Toil. Last but not least, the production boasted an unbearably poignant closing number Who Will Remember?, on which the intrepid, formerly Freewheeling cross-dressing journalist Dorothy Lawrence reflects in solitude during her final years spent in an asylum; here Louise’s piano accompaniment imparted a distinctly Schubertian combination of poise and gravitas, and left a very strong impression. In common with virtually every individual song in the programme, this finale was an object lesson in economy of expression; only the anthemic message of the football-themed Shoulder To Shoulder seeming to overstay its welcome by excessive repetition.
Over the course of a close-on-two-hour span (with interval), Louise was able through her winning personality and well-honed musical and presentation skills to transfer to her spellbound listeners her empathy with, and profound admiration for, the aspirations and achievements of the women whose lives she had so meticulously researched, making the most persuasive case for their remembrance by depicting the strength of their resolve to do what they do, do it well and in the face of opposition and indifference.
Louise’s magnificently accomplished show is not only a polished and professional presentation but also a superb evening’s entertainment – an assessment enthusiastically endorsed by the organisers and their capacity audience. And I feel sure that Louise will have done a brisk trade in her beautifully-presented CDs and other memorabilia including badges – what a pity that by a very early stage of this exhaustive tour she had long since exhausted stocks of a specially brewed ale!
Visit here for more information and dates: www.nopetticoatshere.co.uk/tour-dates/