When Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies’ Day premiered at Hull Truck Theatre in 2005, it introduced the world to Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda – four likely lasses from the Hull fish docks on a day at the races. The play and its sequel, Ladies Down Under, have since been performed around the world, including thousands of performances by amateur and community theatre groups. Now there’s a third play in the sequence, Ladies Unleashed, just premiered at Hull Truck, which brings the story of the Ladies bang up to date. Here, the playwright reflects on the enduring popularity of her beloved Ladies, and why amateur performances of her work are so important to her…
It’s hard to believe it’s almost twenty years since Hull Truck asked me to write Ladies’ Day, a play inspired by Royal Ascot coming to York Racecourse for one year only. It was a huge event in the Yorkshire calendar and a pretty big deal for me, too. A youngish playwright, it was my first commission for a company I’d long admired.
Ladies’ Day opened in June 2005 and ran for three weeks to full houses. I was knocked out by the response but had no expectation it had a future beyond its first production. It was written for a specific place and time; that was part of its success, or so I thought. The characters had other ideas.
The play dramatises a day at the races with four friends who work side-by-side at a Hull fish plant. Swapping overalls for Sunday best, Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda set out for Royal Ascot and get lucky on the Tote. But what Ladies’ Day is truly about is friendship, relationships, hopes, dreams and disappointments. They’re ordinary women in the best sense of the word.
A year later, Hull Truck took Ladies’ Day on a UK tour. I’d hoped the Ladies would be recognisable to a Hull audience but we soon found they were just as relatable across the country. There was also a growing curiosity about the next chapter. The end of Ladies’ Day – a big win for the workmates on the horses – felt like a new beginning.
Ladies Down Under caught up with the gang a couple of years after the win. I hadn’t conceived the story as a sequel, but it was wonderful to write in response to the impact the Ladies had made. The much-loved Hull Truck cast reprised their roles on a once-in-a-lifetime tour of Australia, which soon becomes a metaphorical journey of discovery.
In 2008, Ladies Down Under returned from a UK tour to join the final season at Hull Truck’s legendary Spring Street theatre. It felt like a fitting end to our four-year run. I imagined the characters would forever stay in that magical bubble of time. Not quite. Nick Hern Books had published Ladies’ Day and Ladies Down Under, and pretty soon, new productions were springing up in villages and towns across the country.
As a playwright, you learn to let go of your stories. At the end of a run, there’s no guarantee you’ll see your characters again. Yet thanks to amateur and community theatre, these ladies – and the gents in their world – are very much alive. Pearl, Jan, Shelley and Linda have been played by hundreds of actors in thousands of performances.
Words can’t express how grateful I am to each and every company that programmes my work. I read every licence that comes in, and note all the villages, towns and cities the Ladies are heading to next. I love to hear from you, see your photos and answer your questions on the plays. It’s always a joy to meet you and and talk Ladies. By programming new work, the amateur sector not only keeps plays alive but sustains careers. Every ticket sold in a local theatre, church hall or school is an investment in a writer’s future work, as well as our past
Which brings us to Ladies Unleashed.
I’d made up my mind not to do it. The first Ladies play achieved more than I’d dared hope. The sequel came hot on its heels. Fifteen years passed, but a question kept popping up from actors, producers and audiences: ‘When are you writing a third?’
It was a great compliment, but I really wasn’t sure. I think I was torn between love and fear: your love for the characters, and my fear of failure. Yet I was curious too, and self-doubt is a voice writers know very well. We learn to live with it, channel it and, ultimately, fly in the face of it. Which I finally did in 2018, onstage at Nick Hern Books’ Amateur Theatre Fest, announcing the trilogy so then, I couldn’t not do it.
At the same time, I was talking to Artistic Director Mark Babych about a new play for Hull Truck. We had various ideas but the conversation kept coming back to the Ladies. Mark loved the characters and was interested in the idea of ‘where are they now?’ In 2019, I wrote a first draft set in the present day on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland. Then along came Covid. We all know that story. When theatres reopened and I returned to the play – now programmed for Hull Truck’s 50th-Anniversary season – the world had changed, so I started afresh.
Ladies Unleashed is the third in a trilogy but, like the first, it stands alone as a play for today. I didn’t want to repeat whatever formula there might be in the first two. Pearl, Jan, Linda and Shelley are a generation older, and so am I; the 30-something writer of Ladies’ Day wouldn’t and couldn’t have written this play. I set out to push the boundaries the first two plays had set. Yet in draft after draft, the characters came back so strongly, I knew they’d never quite left. It’s like meeting old friends. I do hope you’ll feel the same.
To mark the publication of the trilogy, I’ve set up a Facebook group for companies producing the Ladies plays. Share your thoughts, questions, photos, dilemmas and discoveries with us on Ladies’ Day, Down Under & Unleashed. I look forward to seeing you there!
Amanda Whittington’s play Ladies Unleashed is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy a copy of the playscript with a 20% discount (
£10.99 £8.79 plus p&p), visit our website.
The playscript is also available as part of an exclusive three-book bundle deal: buy all three plays in the Ladies Trilogy – Ladies’ Day, Ladies Down Under and Ladies Unleashed – at a time-limited discount:
£32.97 £24 plus p&p. Only available on our website here.
Amateur performing rights are now available for all three plays. For more information, visit the relevant page on our Plays to Perform site: Ladies’ Day, Ladies Down Under or Ladies Unleashed. It’s important that you apply for performing requests before any commitment is made.
Author photo by Elizabeth Baker Photography