More than 20 years ago, theatremaker Kaite O’Reilly met a former Second World War codebreaker, Molly Schuesselle. After a half-century of silence, Schuesselle told O’Reilly of the so-called ‘Beauty Parade’ – the female spies sent behind enemy lines to, in Churchill’s words, “set Europe ablaze” through sabotage and infiltration of the enemy. It’s a stirring yet terrifying tale brought to life here through words, music and physical language.
The Beauty Parade is part-play, part-song cycle, telling the unheard stories of these women in an unsentimental yet deeply moving manner. Gung-ho triumphalism is widely swerved, with O’Reilly’s richly poetic text and Rebecca Applin’s score electing for a more elegiac approach. Applin’s songs are performed remarkably by Anne-Marie Piazza and Georgina White, playing Lil and Madeleine respectively, two markedly different women parachuted into France without even bidding their families goodbye. Lil is liaising with the Resistance while the sassy Madeleine seduces Nazi officers for secrets.
Guiding proceedings like an Olympian god is visual language creator Sophie Stone as their commander and mentor back at base. A Deaf actor, Stone’s combination of speech and physical performance reminds us of the cryptography inherent within the operation – whether D/deaf or hearing, the audience members occasionally need to rely on interpretation of a coded language.
O’Reilly is one of Wales’ – indeed, the UK’s – most accomplished makers of theatre that places D/deaf and disability culture at its core. More visceral than some of her other works, The Beauty Parade might be as affecting as anything she has achieved before.