Doncaster actor Keeley Lane is bringing another incredible story of World War One to South Yorkshire – this time looking at the brothels that served the frontline soldiers.
The House Behind the Lines “feels like a story that is not really talked about,” said Keeley, who is also co-artistic director of Doncaster company Buglight Theatre, who created the play.
She is from Bessacarr and went to St Mary’s School.
The show was inspired by a 2014 article by academic Dr Clare Makepeace, who said that when the Tommies set off to war, each had a message from Lord Kitchener folded into their pay books.
He warned them to “be on guard against excesses” especially “temptations both in wine and women” and to “avoid any intimacy”.
However, there were 475,000 cases of venereal disease over the course of the war, making it five times more prevalent than trench foot.
Keeley said: “Babies were being born with a dose of syphilis, from men bringing it back and spreading it.”
The treatment was very painful, involving mercury, and took three weeks. Soldiers were paying women to catch it in a desperate attempt to get time away from the fighting.
Eventually brothels had to be regulated.
The ‘soldiers’ comforts’ were also secretly encouraged to keep up morale, with different places serving enlisted men and officers.
Keeley said: “The officers got condoms, melon and Champagne. The enlisted men got none of that.”
Keeley said that it was a story Buglight wanted to tell from the point of view of women sex workers but how?
“We couldn’t find anything from these women themselves. It’s likely that if someone found their grandma’s diary about her work as a prostitute, they would have hidden it or thrown it away.
“This has so much relevance today to prostitution and sex work and that taboo about something that has got to be told.
“We saw it as giving these women a history book on the shelf. There’s so much written about the men.”
Leeds writer Lydia Rain talked to sex workers in the city’s Holbeck area.
Keeley said: “While they are not in a war zone, they are risking their lives every day.
“They are very brave women despite their troubles that have brought them to their job. We ran writing workshops with them, telling their stories.”
In the show, directed by former Lantern Theatre artistic director Ruth Carney,three women’s stories are the focus.
Two of the cast, Julie Higginson and Jack Alexander, are from Sheffield.
The show opens at Cast next Wednesday and moves to the Lantern Theatre on Thursday. Cast in Doncaster
The tour ends at the Civic, Barnsley on December 1. Barnsley Civic