The Shift Theatre’s production of The Girls in Grey is a play that commemorates the service of the nurses who served during World War One and seeks to inform, educate and preserve the voices of these women for a new generation. It is an interpretation of the important role these women played in their dedication and commitment in the care and convalescence of the soldiers so fondly dubbed: “Our boys’.


Our interest in the subject, and it’s potential for a play, was initially sparked from an ANZAC Day speech (written by Helen’s sister) for a local member of parliament. The source of the content was a paper from the Journal Of Australian Studies, written by Janet Butler, which talked about the nursing experience on Lemnos Island during WW1, and the impact of the conditions on the nurse. It also talked of journals and the documenting of events within them.

The script had been carefully researched, examining the diaries, letters and post war narratives written by nurses during active service, and many books and thesis’ devoted to the subject.  In the writing of the script we sought to capture the spirit and essence of the nursing experience, and lift it off the page into the visceral world of the theatre.

Throughout our writing and research we were acutely aware of the sensitivity around war history and its interpretation and we have garnered feedback throughout the process from both military historians and theatre professionals as to the authenticity and impact of the work.

As writers, we were often overwhelmed. How do we capture these extraordinary moments we were reading about? How do we lift the voices out of the diaries and weave them into a text that is both dynamic and authentic? How do we condense so many vital moments, spanning such a vast landscape, in one act? It is the diaries that are the key: the eyewitness accounts, the musings of life on active service that provide the inspiration for our characters and the narrative of the play. Their clarity immediately draws us into their world. We are privy to a portrait both intimate and revealing, sharing thoughts, grievances, romance, and profound moments of courage and loss. A myriad of experiences, many different voices and opinions but bound by the common theme of nursing practice against the odds and a profound pragmatism.


The first development season was at La Mama theatre in Carlton November 2010, followed by performances at The Shrine of Remembrance in May 2011 as part of Education Week. In 2012 the play opened on ANZAC Day for a three-week season at Theatre Works in St Kilda. It was on the VCE Curriculum as part of drama studies. The play then toured to regional Victoria in 2013 and N.S.W. and Victoria in 2014.  As commemorations continue for the Centenary of The Great War, The Girls In Grey continues to contribute to the legacy of the time. We are an independent unfunded company with a big vision!

Four actors; three female, and one male who plays the multiple roles of husband, sweetheart, brother and the iconic role of “the unknown soldier” perform The Girls in Grey. The play tells the stories of three Australian Army nurses during World War 1.  From the time of leaving our Australian shores they traverse the splendours of sunset over the Sphinx in Egypt, to the eruption of casualties from the Dardanelles. The barren shores of Lemnos Island test even the most stoic, and in the muddy sludge of the Western Front; Elsie, Grace, and Alice battle horrific working conditions, baring witness to the horror of war and the devastation of young men involved in front line conflict.

Elsie always looks for the brighter side. Her infectious sense of humour disguises a fierce determination to follow her husband Syd to war. Courageous Alice is drawn to adventure, unexpectedly falling in love with Harry; a lieutenant whose fate is to be at the dreadful battle of Fromelles. Sturdy, serious Grace is the demanding yet compassionate Matron whose calm resolve is gradually eroded by the anguish of war.

Research sources used in the writing of the play:


• The Other Anzacs by Peter Rees, Pub. 2008
• Veiled Lives by Ruth Ray: Threading Australian Nursing history into the first world war. Pub. The College of Nursing 2009.
• Testimony of Youth by Vera Britten.
• Nursing Gallipolli: Identity and the Challenge of Experience. Janet Butler. Journal of Australian studies no.78,2003
• Nightingales in the Mud by Marianne Barker, Pub 1989
• The Grey Battalion by May Tilton, Pub 1938


• Private record: AWM Pro2082 Australian war memorial, Canberra
• Private record: AWM 2DRL/1085
• A descriptive narrative account of conditions of nursing at a CCS, AWM 25173/9

Past Reviews: 
Peter Green (3MBS 106.5 FM)