Chumbawamba ’s Alice Nutter premieres new play Barnbow Canaries

Photo by Antony Robling

Chumbawamba singer turned playwright Alice Nutter premieres her latest work Barnbow Canaries at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Nutter left the band after 23 years enrolling on the Playhouse’s So You Want To Be A Writer scheme creating the gritty My Generation based on her recollections of life as an anarchist activist through the Thatcher years into rave culture and New Labour.

Barnbow Canaries is based on real life experiences exploring the lives of women working in the Barnbow munitions factory during World War One which at its height employed over 16000 women and girls who magde 566,000 tonnes of ammunition for the war effort.

This new play marks the 100th anniversary year of an explosion at the munitions factory which killed 35 of the workers. It remains the worst loss of life in a single incident in Leeds’ history – yet the story remained much censored and rarely told for many years.

As the Great War gathers pace Nutter tells the story of Agnes and her sister Edith revelling in their new found independence and prosperity as Barnbow Lasses. Not only does their danger money buy them a new life full of confidence, men, work and politics but the thrill of a future full of fun, friendship and freedom. In the wake of the catastrophic explosion, the women discover the true cost of the cry for ‘More shells!’ 

Barnbow Canaries brings together professional performers with a community chorus of women who have auditioned from across Yorkshire – a number of whom are from Cross Gates where the factory was or have their own personal connections with the factory.

Alice Nutter says: ‘When Playhouse Artistic Director James Brining commissioned me, and I researched the tragedy of the Barnbow Munitions factory, I found not just an explosion where 35 women died, but also a story of women who served in World War I.

‘The Yorkshire women who worked at Barnbow made winning the war possible, they were our frontline troops facing poisoning and risking death. And their reward for that was to have their sacrifices covered up for the best part of a century.

‘This isn’t just a play about the Yorkshire women who made munitions, it’s a play about women tasting freedom for the first time and broken promises. Barnbow Canaries is a play recognising and celebrating our Great-Grandmothers, giving them the due that was denied at the end of the war.’

Barnbow Canaries is performed by Jade Ogugua, Tilly Steele, Peter McGovern, Jo Mousley, Colette O’Rourke, Joseph Tweedale, Dominic Gately and Kristin Atherton. They’re joined by a community chorus of 41, performing in two teams.

Barnbow Canaries runs from 15 June – 9 July in the Courtyard Theatre. To book ring the box office 0113 213 7700 or online


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