This production from Red Ladder theatre traces the life and adventures of Annie Wilde, a Lancashire mill-girl and later militant Suffragette, up to the point in 1918 when women finally achieved limited voting rights. Billed as a musical, it conjured visions of chorus lines, orchestras and love interest. A sort of Annie Get Your Banner. But no, turns out this is a solo performance in which Annie tells her own story, songs and all, direct to the audience.
The piece is cleverly scripted, bringing out not the dry political stuff of the struggle, but the perplexities, tenderness and courage of one working-class woman of the time. The script is leavened with lots of wry humour, and wickedly accurate portrayals of the (mostly male) characters who get in her way along the path: teachers, mill bosses, policemen, judges, and more. But it doesn’t shy away from showing the suffering that the suffragists were prepared to undertake, and the fear and self-doubt that went with it. It also of course requires enormous skill from an actor if this is going to come across successfully. Which was here in spades in a finely nuanced and hugely evocative performance in which all the roller coaster of emotions were there; in which the (entirely unaccompanied) songs fitted seamlessly; and the many characterisations were perfectly observed, and very funny. And, yes, the political points came across too, without any heavy-handed tub-thumping – not least with an oblique, cheekily anachronistic reference to Pussy Riot to bring us up to our own day.
A very rich and satisfying piece of theatre, powerfully reminding us, when comedians tell us not to vote, what sacrifices were made to get that vote.
John Christopher Wood