Performed by students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Radium Girls is based on the true early 20th century story of female factory employees who suffered radiation poisoning from their work painting the dials of watches with self-luminious paint. The exposure led to illness and death with the staff having to fight for compensation amid denial from their employers.
Set in New Jersey in the mid 1900s, the play begins with the staff at the United States Radium Corporation unaware that the material they are handling is killing them. Factory owner Arthur Roeder is revelling in the success of his business as demand for his luminescent watch dials soars, helped by famous physicist Marie Curie bringing radium into the mainstream.
But as the story progresses, the horrible truth emerges as more and more women fall ill.
The men running the business aren’t sympathetic to their staff’s plight as they do all they can to prevent the incidents becoming public knowledge with the help of dodgy doctors creating fake evidence that claims to absolve the firm of blame.
Supported by the Consumers League workers’ rights group, the surviving staff fight back and seek their case to be heard in court and demands for big compensation.
The cast of Radium Girls
Despite being students still learning their craft, the cast of this play are very impressive. All put in great performances but there are some who deserve a special mention.
Ellie Jack is superb as dial painter Grace Fryer who pursues her cause with intense determination, despite her mother (played brilliantly by Sumãh Ebelé) trying to get her to give up and accept compensation that isn’t even a year’s salary.
Conor Doran also shines as Arthur Roeder, president of the United States Radium Corporation, who journeys from denial about the issues his products are causing to guilt in his old age over the suffering the business created.
Throughout the cast, the New Jersey accents are impressively consistent and the period outfits are outstanding.
The show is performed in the round in Bristol Old Vic’s Weston Studio with a simple but highly effective set of a table on wheels and a few chairs. As scenes change from the factory to living rooms to a courtroom, the cast walk seemlessly between the aisles.
The emotion of this story of corporate injustice is intense and communicated really well. The fact that it’s based on a true story makes it even more powerful.
We enjoyed the show although we felt some of the final scenes were a little too protracted and the play could have a bit shorter. Overall though it’s a fabulous production and the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School students’ performances suggest a very bright future for the UK acting profession.
Radium Girls is at Bristol Old Vic until 12 November.