A friend of mine summed up Clean better than I ever can. “It’s like a Woman’s Hour podcast in a garden,” he said. “Which is lovely.” He was right on every count, I think: there is indeed a documentary aspect to the Sam Chittenden’s script, which sees a varied group of women speak directly to the audience as they share their memories of a particular place and time. It is, magnificently, performed in a garden, an old laundry drying ground tucked between houses in Roundhill. And it is indeed lovely - though in a bittersweet, thoughtful kind of way.
The opening story is arresting: a deadly disease is sweeping through the streets, the afflicted confined to their homes with black crosses painted on their doors. But this isn’t London in 1665; it’s Brighton in 1951, the scene of the UK’s last significant outbreak of smallpox. We view this startling story through a very particular lens - recounted by a worker at the Tivoli laundry, where the disease arrived on contaminated dirty clothes. She’s worried for her colleagues, but also for the future of the business, just one example of how Chittenden explores complex large-scale issues through comprehensible individual concerns.
More stories follow, drawn from the late 1800’s right through to the present day. There’s a “lady doctor” breaking the mould in Edwardian times; a suffragette keen to exercise her hard-won right to vote; a domestic-abuse sufferer starting a new life in Brighton; and a modern-day everywoman, reflecting on the trials of the menopause. The narratives are separate, but the monologues are intercut, building a sense of togetherness and mutual support. Towards the end, Chittenden and co-director Katie Turner-Halliday have the characters literally reach out across the ages, touching and embracing in a moving display of common understanding.
The garden setting, meanwhile, is almost magical. Of course it adds logistical complications and delivers weird sight-lines; I found myself watching most of the opening scene with my head inside a tree. But it’s worth it, as the open space gives the characters room to move and breathe, complementing the theme of liberation and self-determination underpinning many of the tales. In a neat additional touch, you’re free to explore the garden before the show, and discover small tableaux reflecting the women’s lives: a medical notebook resting on a table, a votes-for-women placard ready to go on parade.
I do worry that there are too many narratives running in parallel; with so much dipping in and out of separate stories, I didn’t feel as engaged with the characters and their troubles as I might have expected to be. And although it didn’t bother me at the time, I realised later that I wasn’t sure how - or whether - the disparate components hang together. Am I right that some of the women are related, or was that just my imagination at work? Are the two laundry workers from the same generation, or are they separated by 50 or even 100 years? I’m sure that the answers to my questions are there in the script, but there was too much going on for them to permeate my mind.
In a very real sense, though, that confusion doesn’t matter. While Clean is a collection of individual stories, it’s really about the value of community - about the ties that bind us all, and women specifically, embodied by a stirring song paying tribute to “my mother, my daughter, my sister, my friend”. It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity and experience, done full justice by a uniformly compelling cast. And it’s a fitting celebration, not just of these women - but of the future generations whose stories are yet to be told.