55: Dolly Stainer of Kew Cottages

15 May

Janet Brown’s script Dolly Stainer of Kew Cottages was published before the play was cast or went into rehearsals. I think this was probably a shame, but it’s hard to know without having seen the production.

What I do know is that most plays change once they are being worked with a director and cast. You might cut a few lines, realise that scenes don’t quite fit together as written or the changes might be more significant. For the play to be published before it goes through that refining process seems a little premature.


Janet Brown was inspired to write this play when she read Kew Cottages: the World of Dolly Stainer by Cliff Judge and Fran van Brummelen. Dolly Stainer was institutionalised at Kew Cottages when she was five years old. She stayed there for 75 years as an inmate but also as a worker: managing the laundry and nursing, feeding and changing the young children.

Her story could be tragic or inspirational but instead it comes across as rather an anticlimax. On the page you never really take to Dolly: she’s bossy and obsessive and the time jumps in scenes mean that you never spend long enough with her at any age to really feel for her.

DOCTOR PHILLIPS: You’ve been here a very long time, Dolly.

DOLLY: How long I been here, Doctor?

DOCTOR PHILLIPS: You’ve been at Kew Cottages for seventy-five years, Dolly.

DOLLY: Seventy-five years! That a long, long time. (Thinking, then forcefully) I very sick of this place.

DOCTOR PHILLIPS: Do you really and truly want to move out?

DOLLY: (enthusing) Oh yes, I really really do.

In a writer’s note at the end of the script, Janet Brown says: “It is pure folly to try to write the story of a person’s life as theatre, yet writers are drawn to such projects. There’s an impossible tension in trying to make the piece work as theatre, building conflict and flagging certain episodes as particularly meaningful so that the work develops and hangs together with suitable dynamic, whilst remaining true to what is really known of the events, relationships and the spirit of that person’s life.” Reading the play, it feels as if Janet Brown has remained very true to Dolly’s life, possibly to the detriment of the theatrical experience.

Published alongside Carrying Shoes into the Unknown by R. Johns.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 2F, 1M (contains lots of doubling – could be played by a larger cast)

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