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Gas Girls – Bristol Theatre Company explores forgotten WW1 story in community play

  • Date: 28 February 2014
  • Area: South West
Three ladies dressed as munitions workers in gas factory stand together

Gas Girls: acta, 2013. Credit: Graham Burke

Community theatre company acta unveil their new show in Bristol this March, supported with an award of £34,972 from Arts Council England's National Lottery funded Grants for the arts scheme and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Gas Girls tells the moving story of the local women who worked in Avonmouth mustard gas factories during the First World War.  

Fusing theatre, history and science, Gas Girls uncovers the little known tale of the female munitions workers from Bristol whose jobs in the Avonmouth factories - at the helm of Britain's chemical warfare industry - cost them more than they bargained for. In 1918 there were two factories in Avonmouth employing hundreds of local women and girls to make and fill shells with deadly Mustard Gas. Records show there were hundreds of accidents, nearly three thousand casualties and several deaths.

'This is an amazing story, and the more we've found out, the more amazing it has become', says acta's Artistic Director Neil Beddow. 'The Government had decided that Mustard Gas was key to winning the war, and the women worked in extraordinarily dangerous conditions, with terrible consequences to their health. But they kept going, they kept working, and the play is about how they did that, and what drove them to carry on.'

Featuring the largest cast for a touring show that the company have ever assembled, 20 people from local communities will perform the devised piece at the acta centre from 19 - 21 March, for three special preview performances before touring around Bristol in June.

Research involved engagement with National Archives, record offices and local history groups and looked into social aspects of the history including personal challenges of people living at the time; particularly the changing role of women, and attitudes to war.

Tracey Harvey, who lives in Bedminster, helped with research and plays a factory nurse in the play.  She says: 'At a time when the whole country will be thinking about the sacrifices of the soldiers, we want to pay tribute to the sacrifices of the women'.

A book and a film will be created alongside the play to help share the story to a wide audience.

Phil Gibby, Area Director, South West, Arts Council England says: 'Gas Girls is one of the many projects across the South West we are supporting through our Grants for the arts programme that commemorate the centenary of World War I and it is a particularly poignant reminder of the women of Bristol who contributed so much.  acta have uncovered a story that deserves to be told and it is fitting that the communities themselves will be telling it.'   

Gas Girls will premiere Wednesday 19 March - Friday 21 March, 7.00pm at the acta Centre, Gladstone Street, Bedminster, BS3 3AY

Tickets available from acta