Imagine the scene. It’s 1917, the World at war, the fighting men far away and voting for women still three years off in the US.
Enter a group of switchboard operators. Wait, what is a switchboard I hear you ask? Switchboards were what people used to telephone each other before we had Mobile & Smart Phones and there was a friendly operator on the other end to connect your call to the other party. Callers were always greeted with ‘Hello’ by the operator which is where the term Hello Girls comes from. Their true designation was “Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit”.
Due to the revolutionary foresight of one General John J Pershing, a commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front, this unit came into being. Pershing, commandingly played by Nick Setchell, determined that the state of communications needed to be improved and the only way to achieve that was to recruit the best operators available – Women. Not just women but women who could speak both English & French to be able to communicate and assist in translations with the allies.
The Hello Girls could not have been more different from one another. Each had their own story and reasons for wanting to be a part of the War. The Chief Operator – Grace Banker played by Rebecca Raymond is a tough, feisty character who strives to achieve her best. Suzanne Prevot played by Cassidy Gaiter is cheeky, sassy and a little spicy. Suzanne is often the instigator of the fight to recognise the role of women in war. Helen Hill played by Michelle Davy is from a small hometown just looking for the bright lights, not ever thinking those lights would be half way across the world in France. Bertha Hunt played by Jenny Scarce already has a husband fighting overseas and is not content to sit around waiting and worrying about him so decides to enlist. Finally Louise LeBreton played by Eloise Quinn-Valentine is a young (under-age) enlistee who was originally born in France and lived there for 15 years before moving to the US.
After the interview process of some 7,000 applicants, just over 200 were initially accepted. They completed signal corps training, took the oath and were sent to Europe in March 1918 where they had to deal with initial hostility from some of their own who believed they should be at home looking after children.
One such believer was Captain Joseph Riser played by David MacGillivray. The interactions between Riser and Banker are often angry, sarcastic, witty, pointed but never dull. Private Eugene Matterson played by Jared Gerschwitz tries so hard to capture the attention of Suzanne. It is almost painful and the audience definitely has a soft spot for their relationship. Lt Ernest Wessen and Private Robert Dempsey played by Jarred Frost and Deon Martino-Williams respectively round out this exceptional cast whose stage presence and vocals whether individually or as an ensemble often leave the audience with chills.
Technically this show is a hit also. Set Design by David Lampard cannot be surpassed from its simplicity and functionality to the clever manoeuvrability of pieces to create scenes. Lighting by Greg Donhardt showed the bleakness of war without ever becoming so dark you could not see the performers. Costumes were as authentic as you could get but most impressive were they were all the same – boots, belts, caps, helmets all matched not a mishmash.
Sadly as was often the case at the time with many women’s rights issues, there was not a happy ending to this story for many, many years. I urge you to buy tickets to The Hello Girls and enjoy a thoroughly entertaining, but also an historically informative night out.