Musical to make a song and dance about Sheffield women in wartime

Workshops under way for the musical The Canary Girls
Workshops under way for the musical The Canary Girls

A major new musical is set to put the lives of Sheffield's wartime women on the stage.

The Canary Girls has been inspired by the city's famous Women of Steel, who kept the munitions factories and steel mills going in both world wars and whose efforts were commemorated last year with a permanent statue in Barker's Pool.

The musical, set in the 1940s, was inspired by the lives of women who kept factories and steel mills going during the war

The musical, set in the 1940s, was inspired by the lives of women who kept factories and steel mills going during the war

Set in Sheffield in the 1940s, the story follows three young women, Niamh, Boo and Alma, who find an escape from humdrum everyday life through wartime swing music.

Tim Nye, a retired police detective who owns Marmadukes Café Deli on Norfolk Row, has written the book along with musician Tim Kellett, formerly of Simply Red.

Kellett and singer-songwriter Rosie Doonan are responsible for the music and lyrics, the director is Eleanor Rhode, Greg Arrowsmith is musical director and Tara Finney is producing. Tara's past ventures include the critically-acclaimed Land of Our Fathers, by Chris Urch.

The musical is at an early stage of development. But today the first act will be performed in front of influential theatrical figures in London, in a bid to generate interest and attract funding.

"It's a fictional story about wartime ladies," said Tim Nye, who has been speaking to some of the surviving Women of Steel to gather real-life tales.

Tim Kellett, Rosie Doonan and Tim Nye

Tim Kellett, Rosie Doonan and Tim Nye

"We've got all sorts of anecdotes from them to try and tell the story."

He said the work was 'very much inspired' by the deeds of the women who were conscripted to work in vital roles during World Wars One and Two, but that it highlighted one particular aspect of their experiences.

"It brings out the importance of music during the war. In the factories they did some dirty, horrible work, so they tried to keep their spirits up by singing, which is why we've turned it into a musical. Music got them through the day.

"I've wanted to write for about 10 years but I've not done anything like this. I'm very new to it."

The Women of Steel statue in Barker's Pool

The Women of Steel statue in Barker's Pool

The 'canary girls' were the UK's first TNT shell makers in World War One. The nickname came about because the explosive is toxic, and repeated contact can turn the skin a shade of yellow, similar to a canary's feathers.

Tim Kellett was a member of post-punk band The Durutti Column before joining Simply Red, Mick Hucknall's pop-soul outfit. He left the group in 1991 and later found more success with dance act Olive, who reached number one in 1997 with the big hit You're Not Alone. He also has writing credits on songs with Girls Aloud and Taio Cruz, among others.

Meanwhile Rosie has toured with Peter Gabriel and the singer-songwriter Birdy.

The workshops for the musical have a cast list that includes 'some fantastic people who have had experience in the West End', said Nye, including two Olivier Award winners, Katie Brayben and Sharon D Clarke. Katie, who plays Boo, is best known for appearing as Carole King in the stage show Beautiful.

Niamh Perry, appropriately, takes the part of Niamh - she has previously performed in Once and Mamma Mia! Two Olivier nominees, Killian Donnelly and Ian McIntosh, are also involved, along with Raj Bajaj, Simon Slater and Francesca Zoutewelle - together their CVs range from Bend It Like Beckham to Hamlet.

The first act is being staged at the Jerwood rehearsal space in London.

"It's a fabulous venue," said Tim. "We're showing people from the industry what we've been doing."

Support has come from the Arts Council, and Sheffield Council is backing the production, too.

"They've got behind it and are really pleased."