Women of Twilight

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Women of Twilight is a 1951 play by Sylvia Rayman that became a 1952 film directed by Gordon Parry. The latter starred Freda Jackson, Rene Ray and Lois Maxwell, with a screenplay by Anatole de Grunwald.[1] It was the first British film to receive the recently introduced X certificate.


"The scene throughout is a semi-basement living room in a house near London, a grim and sordid place inhabited for sleeping and eating by a motley group of unmarried young women with babies - already born or about to be hustled into an unfriendly world. The 'proprietress' - a sadistic, unscrupulous woman called Helen Allistair - though a qualified nurse, exploits these unfortunate outcasts from society until one of them - the despairing girl Vivianne, whose gangster lover is hanged and who has nothing to lose - discovers this ghoulish creature's baby-farming activities. Vivianne, whose baby is shortly to be born, faces Mrs Allistair with her accusation, is brutally assaulted and almost loses her life. In the end justice is done, and Mrs Allistair gets her deserts."[2]


Women of Twilight was the first play written by Sylvia Rayman (1923–86).

According to the play's Broadway programme, "Sylvia Rayman's address, before she arrived in London, was Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester. After she finished her schooling she worked in a factory and library and then went to London to become a writer. She supported herself as an usher, a nurse girl and a clerk in a ticket agency."[3] By 1951, when Women of Twilight was picked up for production, she was working as a part-time waitress at a cafeteria on north London's Finchley Road.

Presented by Jean Shepeard and Evelyn Dysart at the Regent Theatre, Hayes on 30 July, Rayman's debut was advertised as 'an all-women play' and directed by Rona Laurie. Among material ordered cut by the Lord Chamberlain's office was dialogue relating to one character having been raped, plus the use of the Girl Guide motto "Be prepared" with an obvious sexual innuendo.[4] The published text contains an introduction by Laurie ("This is a strong, forceful play calling for great sincerity both in production and acting"), plus the following note: "Sylvia Rayman gratefully acknowledges Miss Jean Shepeard's work in adapting the script for stage presentation, for finding its present title, and for first presenting it."[5] The cast on this occasion included future playwright Ann Jellicoe.

A different production, directed by Anthony Hawtrey, was mounted at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage on 15 October. According to Oscar Lewenstein (later co-founder of the English Stage Company), "Jean [Shepeard] was reluctant to let us have the rights, but eventually I was able to make a deal with her. Tony was enthusiastic and got a strong cast, all women, most of whom had worked at the Embassy before."[6] Having been taken up by impresario Jack Hylton, Hawtrey's production transferred to the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End on 7 November. Billed as "London's most daring play", it closed on 19 April 1952 after 186 performances.

After a two-month break (during which the film version was made), Hawtrey's production was revived at the Victoria Palace on 18 June, playing twice-nightly until 1 November and achieving another 235 performances. For this run, Freda Jackson, star of the yet to be released film, was added to the cast. Noted The Stage newspaper, "Jack Hylton feels this play has a vast potential audience who will welcome the cheaper seats obtainable at the Victoria Palace. There is no question of the play, which deals with the social problem of the unmarried mother, being sensationalised by its transference to a twice-nightly theatre."[7]

By this time, Hylton and Hawtrey had already taken the play on an ill-fated excursion to New York, where it opened at the Plymouth Theatre on 3 March, closing on 8 March after only eight performances. This production marked the only Broadway appearance for such British actresses as Betty Ann Davies, Miriam Karlin, Gwen Watford and June Whitfield.

In the UK, the play began a long life on tour even while the Vaudeville production was still running. It was also popular at regional repertory theatres. Freda Jackson, for example, spent much of 1954 guest-starring in the play at various reps, notably Windsor, Richmond and Northampton. Then in 1955, director Rona Laurie and producer Jean Shepeard reclaimed the property for a tour of provincial music halls; Shepeard also acted in this version.

Sylvia Rayman, meanwhile, had two further plays produced, both of them thrillers - Time to Speak and Justice in Heaven, first staged in April 1957 and March 1958 respectively. Neither repeated the success of Women of Twilight.

The first notable revival of Women of Twilight was directed by Jonathan Rigby and opened at London's White Bear Theatre on 3 October 2013 as part of its Lost Classics Project. The production was itself revived, at the same venue, on 6 January 2014 and again, this time at Pleasance Islington, from 14 April.[8]

Theatre reviews[edit]

The Stage, October 1951: "It is seldom that a play comes along that can grip like this one does. Perhaps it is just as well. The plight of dramatic critics whose emotions were weekly wrung with this sort of thing would be sad indeed. For here is a direct and sincere composition that, without possessing much artistic merit or beauty of line, tells, nevertheless, a story that grips the imagination from the outset and will not let it go. It does not demand much prescience to predict that it will duly gain a larger audience than it will see at Swiss Cottage ... Miss Rayman has etched a clear-cut and disturbing play in which the characters are extraordinarily well defined and endowed with a credibility that carries them unscathed through situations that verge at times perilously close to the melodramatic."[9]

The Observer, October 1951: "No one would put this among the Plays Pleasant, but it does seize the mind."[10]

The Spectator, October 1951: "Miss Rayman has written her first play around a revolting character who makes a comfortable income by taking unmarried mothers and their infants into her Hampstead home ... Virtue triumphs on the Embassy stage but it does not always triumph outside the theatre, and one is left wondering just what does happen to such girls who have neither friends nor relatives to turn to and who escape the welfare of the State for some reason. The piece is very well acted by Barbara Couper, Vida Hope, Rene Ray and the rest of a company entirely of women."[11]

Daily Telegraph, October 1951: "Unrelieved femininity is popularly supposed to breed neurosis, and certainly this is the most hysterical play I have met for many years."[12]

The Stage, November 1951: "The play well deserves its quick transfer to the West End ... Sylvia Rayman, whose first play this is and whose previous career has run on non-theatrical lines, piles on the agony more than somewhat. This is indeed a remarkable drama to come from an inexperienced pen; it would be praised if offered by an established dramatist ... Barbara Couper, as the baby-farmer and operator of the home, could not send a bigger thrill down our spines if she were appearing in the most horrible of avowed Grand Guignol sketches; and Rene Ray really moves us as poor Vivianne. But the whole company is first-class."[13]

Theatre World, January 1952: "This was a first play of highly melodramatic and even Grand Guignol proportions. But the characterisation was entirely convincing, so that, thanks to an exceedingly clever all-woman cast, one quickly lost one's sense that the story was over-coloured ... Improbable though it may seem, there is a considerable amount of humour in the play, thanks to the author's undoubted gift for character drawing, and Anthony Hawtrey's production made the most of every opportunity for light and shade. Mary Purvis's setting was painfully squalid in every detail."[14]

The Stage, June 1952: "Twice-nightly performance at a theatre so long associated with the antics of the Crazy Gang is hardly the ideal environment for a bold play about unmarried mothers ... One fears not so much for the play, which, leaving aside the worth of its subject, is no more than a tolerably good one; but rather for the subject itself, which is liable to be taken in the wrong spirit by the prude and prurient ... Anthony Hawtrey's production has made the transfer from the Vaudeville without any obvious hitches ... As the landlady, Freda Jackson conveys an admirably restrained sense of power in the earlier episodes, which she later develops into an impressive climax of malignant passion."[15]


Women of Twilight
Directed by Gordon Parry
Produced by Daniel M Angel
Release date
  • 4 November 1952 (1952-11-04) (preview screening)
  • 23 February 1953 (1953-02-23) (general release)
Running time
89 minutes
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Box office £154,620[16]

Completing production in the second week of June 1952, the film version was made at the Gate Studios, Boreham Wood and retained Rene Ray, Vida Hope and Betty Henderson from the original West End production. Freda Jackson and Joan Dowling were cast in key roles reminiscent of the parts they had played in the 1945 play No Room at the Inn and its 1948 film version.

John and James Woolf of Romulus Films had first enquired about the property even before its presentation at the Embassy Theatre; the leading players they had in mind at this early stage were Flora Robson and Ida Lupino.[17] Among the changes made to Rayman's play was the introduction of Vivianne's condemned lover Jerry Nolan (called Johnny Stanton in the play), a role assigned to Woolf's contract player Laurence Harvey. In addition, the enigmatic character of Laura became a continental boarder called Lilli. The British Board of Film Censors objected to some of the script's dialogue; to ensure an X certificate, "your rotten little bastards" had to be changed to "your rotten little brats", "you sanctimonious little bitch" to "you sanctimonious little fool" and "I was raped" to "I was taken advantage of." Caution was also advised regarding the climactic scene in which Helen throws the pregnant Vivianne down a flight of stairs.[18]

Trade shown on 4 November 1952, the film opened at the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus on 15 January 1953, with general release following from 23 February. Press responses ranged from "Though grossly overacted by all in sight, the film will draw pity from those who know how harsh the world can be"[19] to "Before virtue triumphs we are treated to a great deal of horror and degradation ... It is not only rapacious boarding-house keepers and baby-farmers who exploit the misfortunes of unmarried mothers. Where would popular playwrights and film producers be without them?"[20]

According to producer Daniel Angel, his original plan had been to couple the film with another 'social problem' picture (again based on a controversial play), Cosh Boy directed by Lewis Gilbert. "Jimmy Woolf had these two stories," he said, "and we made the films with the idea of showing them in cinemas together on the one programme. They turned out better than we'd expected and we showed them separately."[21]

On 23 February 2010, the films (under their US titles of Twilight Women and The Slasher) were finally united on a double-feature DVD release from VCI Entertainment. The cover design for this release featured Freda Jackson, not in Women of Twilight, but in her other 'vicious landlady' role, Mrs Voray in No Room at the Inn.

Another screen version of Rayman's play, Mulheres do crepúsculo, was broadcast as part of the Brazilian TV series Grande Teatro Tupi on 13 January 1963.[22]

Film criticism[edit]

Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1952: "This sordid story has been dealt with in an unimaginative, self-conscious manner, with the emphasis on the sensational ... The film, which infers that it has performed a social duty in bringing these unpleasant facts before the public, could have done better by dropping the pointless initial Soho nightclub scenes, and introducing a sequence showing what social services there are available for the unmarried mother. But Women of Twilight, the first British film to receive an 'X' certificate from the censor, is perhaps scarcely remarkable for truth to life."[23]

Sunday Dispatch, January 1953: "A study of low life and bad morals in the Russian manner. A houseful of unhappy unmarried mothers will arouse the sympathy of all but the most censorious. Many of the original stage cast repeat their lifelike performances on the screen. If the aim of tragedy is to purge the soul with pity, this is indeed a great tragic film."[24]

Daily Telegraph, January 1953: "I missed Women of Twilight as a play because I chose to; I saw the film because I must. This study of the conditions in which unmarried mothers live and have their children, and not uncommonly watch them die, is powerful, sordid, disturbing and perhaps not so overdrawn as some good easy people think. If it helps to awaken the public conscience and sharpen official vigilance it will be justified."[25]

The Star, January 1953: "First thing to be said about Women of Twilight (Plaza) is that it is designed as a shocker - and it shocks ... But if you enjoy watching women snarling, scratching or pulling each other's hair out, in sordid surroundings, this is your picture."[26]

Daily Sketch, January 1953: "Here is an adult, honest drama which focuses attention on a real-life problem to which none of us should close our eyes. But I warn you; the young actresses - a male face seldom appears in this film - throw themselves wholeheartedly into their sad parts."[27]

The Spectator, January 1953: "Miss Jackson is an old hand at the silky sinister, the velvet vile, and as usual is admirably alarming. Her wickedness seeps through her mask of virtue like dampness through a newly painted wall; her every sweetness is threaded with a shiver ... This film has all the ingredients of a Grand Guignol, but being underplayed in the true English fashion, and quietly directed by Mr Gordon Parry, it has turned out to be a seemingly plausible record of man's inhumanity to woman and a woman's attempt to cash in on it."[28]

Cast - Hayes premiere 1951[edit]

  • Helen Allistair - Beatrix Mackay
  • Christine - Delphine Muir
  • Jess - Ana Glyn
  • Rosie - Ann Purkiss
  • Laura - Ann Jellicoe
  • Vivianne - Shelley Lynn
  • Veronica - Maureen Hurley
  • Olga - Olga Lowe
  • Sal - Lynda King
  • Molly - Mary Newlands
  • nurse - Evelyn Dysart

Cast - Embassy and Vaudeville Theatres 1951/52[edit]

Cast - Broadway: Plymouth Theatre 1952[edit]

Cast - Victoria Palace Theatre 1952[edit]

Cast - film version 1952[edit]

Cast - White Bear and Pleasance Theatres 2013/14[edit]

  • Helen Allistair - Sally Mortemore
  • Christine - Elizabeth Donnelly
  • Jess - Vanessa Russell
  • Rosie - Ailsa Ilott
  • Laura - Emma Spearing
  • Vivianne - Claire Louise Amias
  • Veronica - Amy Comper
  • Olga - Francesca Anderson
  • Sal - Emma Reade-Davies
  • Molly - Christie Banks
  • nurse - Maggie Robson [White Bear], Virge Gilchrist [Pleasance]


  1. ^ http://ftvdb.bfi.org.uk/sift/title/58547
  2. ^ Frances Stephens, Theatre World Annual (London), Rockliff Publishing Corporation, 1952
  3. ^ 'Who's Who in the Cast', Women of Twilight programme, Playbill Inc, March 1952
  4. ^ Tony Aldgate, 'Women of Twilight, Cosh Boy and the advent of the 'X' certificate', Journal of Popular British Cinema March 2000
  5. ^ Sylvia Rayman, Women of Twilight: An All-women Play, Evans Plays, Evans Brothers Ltd, 1952
  6. ^ Oscar Lewenstein, Kicking Against the Pricks: A Theatre Producer Looks Back, London: Nick Hern Books, 1994
  7. ^ 'Chit Chat', The Stage, 5 June 1952
  8. ^ http://womenoftwilightplay.co.uk/home/4580216438
  9. ^ unsigned review, The Stage, 18 October 1951
  10. ^ J C Trewin in The Observer, 21 October 1951
  11. ^ Iain Hamilton in The Spectator, 18 October 1951
  12. ^ unsigned review, The Daily Telegraph, 16 October 1951
  13. ^ unsigned review, The Stage, 15 November 1951
  14. ^ Frances Stephens in Theatre World, January 1952
  15. ^ unsigned review, The Stage, 26 June 1952
  16. ^ Vincent Porter, 'The Robert Clark Account', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 20 No 4, 2000 p 498
  17. ^ Anthony Aldgate and James Crighton Robertson, Censorship in Theatre and Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, 2005
  18. ^ Tony Aldgate, 'Women of Twilight, Cosh Boy and the advent of the 'X' certificate', Journal of Popular British Cinema March 2000
  19. ^ unsigned review, Daily Herald, 16 January 1953
  20. ^ Thomas Spencer, 'Baby-farmer', Daily Worker, 17 January 1953
  21. ^ Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema, Methuen, 1997
  22. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2501528/?ref_=ttfc_fc_tt
  23. ^ unsigned review, Monthly Film Bulletin, December 1952
  24. ^ Harris Deans in The Sunday Dispatch, 18 January 1953
  25. ^ Campbell Dixon in The Daily Telegraph, 19 January 1953
  26. ^ Roy Nash in The Star, 16 January 1953
  27. ^ Ray Nunn in The Daily Sketch, 16 January 1953
  28. ^ Virginia Graham in The Spectator, 16 January 1953