Revolting Women – Review – Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield
By Eve Luddington, May 2018
‘Theatre Anywhere for Everyone by Canal, River and Road’. That’s Marsden-based Mikron Theatre’s motto. Their mission includes delivering ‘professional theatre to people’s doorsteps, in relaxed environments’, and telling stories about uniquely British things. Judging by the buzz when I attended Revolting Women at Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield, their audiences love not only their work but the company itself. Before the performance, the man next to me chatted animatedly about their last show, the performers and the clever set design.
It’s rare to see Mikron in a purpose-built theatre. In summer, they live and tour on Tyseley, their 82 year-old narrow boat, with their set, props and costumes. Their many and varied venues include old people’s homes, lifeboat stations, fish and chip shops, village halls and quaysides. Mikron will tour 103 venues in 2018 with their shows, Get Well Soon, marking the NHS’s 70th birthday, and this one, celebrating 100 years of fighting for the vote.
Revolting Women is a celebration of the women’s suffrage movement, as seen through the eyes of Sylvia, one of three Pankhursts famous for their campaigning in the early 20th century. Darker moments are all the more significant for their rarity.
As Artistic Director Marianne McNamara explained in an interview for the Huddersfield Daily Examiner: “Sylvia was the lesser-known one in the family and yet was an amazing and very brave woman. She cared passionately about equality and wasn’t afraid to fight for it. The play explores her journey from when she was speaking outside her shop and people were throwing fish heads at her and shouting abuse, to when she was refusing food in prison.”
Sylvia’s was a tough job, especially for a middle-class woman whose accent and manner were alien to the East Enders she alighted on. The women (and men) were so downtrodden that they didn’t see the campaign for women’s suffrage as relevant to them. But Sylvia’s campaigning for suffrage was part of a much greater quest to improve the lives of the under-represented: her genuine passion and commitment persuaded many of them that gaining the vote could have a practical effect on their everyday lives. After a while, even the fiercely macho male dockworkers supported the cause.
The play is a highly imaginative comic satire, accessible and well-paced, with fast and furious dialogue. The set, necessarily compact for a canal boat tour, is a simple wooden structure; a platform with uprights used as costume rail and to hang a Votes for Women banner. There’s no theatrical lighting, just the actors and their props in the space.
“Considerable feat of skill”
Four highly versatile performers play their own musical accompaniment on 8 or 9 instruments as they don a hat or scarf to create a new cameo character or caricature, usually facing front and, at one point, coming into the audience to distribute ‘Votes for Women’ leaflets. Their timing is impressive, their approach joyous.
Revolting Women is a considerable feat of skill aided in no small measure by inventive and slick direction, achieved apparently without effort and with great relish. On the night I attended, the performers’ rapport with the audience was so brilliant, the atmosphere so intimate, that it felt as if this was a performance shared with friends
The many highlights include the hilarious lampooning of the House of Commons and its members, who legislate against the Suffragettes while trying to avoid addressing their mission, which raised so much laughter that I missed some of the dialogue. The tension between Sylvia and her controlling sister, Christabel (played by a man), arose from their different philosophies. Socialist Sylvia believed in local campaigning, Christabel in the ‘grand gesture’. Here, the on-going dispute is shown at first through Christabel’s letters, one of which states: ‘Mother and I would like it if you could burn down Nottingham Castle.’ It culminates in a face-to-face confrontation, danced imaginatively and exquisitely as a tango which graphically demonstrates their conflict.
Sylvia Pankhurst was prepared to fight to the death for the cause in her own particular way. It didn’t include arson but did involve actions which had her arrested and imprisoned. There, she went on eight hunger and thirst strikes interspersed by release under the notorious Cat and Mouse Act at considerable cost to her health. These alarmed her local supporters, concerned for her well-being but also about her expectations of them.
In one of the play’s most striking scenes, East Ender Letty Taylor warns Sylvia not to expect others to commit imprisonable offences. It’s all right for Sylvia: when she’s released from prison, she has a nice middle-class friend to nurse her back to health; but the poor are already overworked and malnourished with no fall-back position. It’s a lesson Sylvia doesn’t forget.
This is a performance I won’t forget for its content, style and, perhaps most of all, for the shared ebullience of performers and audience. The company set out to celebrate 100 years of campaigning for the vote by informing and entertaining. It achieved that and more, creating the magical atmosphere of theatre at its best as a celebration of shared experience between performers and audience.
Marianne McNamara came on stage at the end to thank the audience and to name all those who had contributed to the production. I’ve never seen that before. It’s a great way of showing how much the company is a mutually dependent team. So, in honour of that, I’ve saved other names till the end. Apologies, Mikron, if I’ve forgotten anyone – and thank you for a wonderful night at the theatre.