Paved with Gold and Ashes – review: a powerful all-female debut set in New York

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Paved with Gold and Ashes – review: a powerful all-female debut set in New York

Julia Thurston's play, at the Barons Court Theatre, Kensington, is set in the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and tells of hardship, friendship, love and tragedy

Everleigh Brenner plays Rose in New Yorker Julia Thurston's 'Paved with Gold and Ashes'
Everleigh Brenner plays Rose in New Yorker Julia Thurston's 'Paved with Gold and Ashes'

Paved with Gold and Ashes is a jewel of a play that comes to London after a critically acclaimed run at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Set in New York’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the year is 1911 and the action follows the lives of five young women, all immigrants to the USA – the land where the streets are paved with gold. Based on a true story, the beautifully worded script – the first play of New Yorker Julia Thurston – combines with acapella to produce a powerful and dramatic play.

“I first learned about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in a history lesson, at school,” said Julia. “I would often pass by the factory’s site and I felt I wanted to know more about the people who worked there and the terrible tragedy that happened. And when I started to research it, I knew there was a play that needed to be written.”

Two of the factory workers are Jewish. Everleigh Brenner plays Rose, the rabbi’s daughter, and Serena Lehman plays Ida, a young, pregnant, woman engaged to Max. Julia, who is not Jewish, sought the advice of a Jewish friend when creating their characters. Shul-goers will recognise the beautiful sounds of Mi Shebeirach, the prayer for healing and finding strength and courage.

All five of the all-female cast are New-York born. Playwright Julia Thurston and Caroline Letelier play the Italian immigrant sisters Lucia and Rosaria, with Olivia Gaidry playing Irish immigrant Annie. All accomplished and talented performers they transport the audience back in time and into the cruel and harsh world of the garment industry at the turn of the century.

The clatter of the sewing machines creates the background sound in this tale of hardship, friendship, love and tragedy. The direction – the cast, rather than have an outside director, chose to direct the play themselves – is faultless.

Brought to London by Three Dumb Theatre this performance lasts just 60 minutes, but it is well worth a trip to Kensington. The Barons Court Theatre is a tiny space but Paved with Gold and Ashes packs a huge punch. It may be set in the past, but its themes still resonate today. It forms part of a double bill with a second all-female play, Fire Embers Ash, about another true story, the first all-female aviation team of the Second World War.

Paved with Gold and Ashes is at the Barons Court Theatre, London W14, until 27 January 2024

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