“Deeds not words” was Emmeline Pankhurst’s militant motto. So when you are caught up in a melee outside York Minster involving placard wavers, protest singers and incendiary speechmakers urging women of the world to unite against gender injustice, you could be forgiven for thinking a full-blown, girl-power riot is indeed about to erupt.
But this shouty curtain-raiser to the Theatre Royal’s sixth annual community production is a faux-demo designed to activate the audience into angry mode before a battalion of Edwardian suffragettes marches everyone off to the theatre to discover how local women challenged male power to gain the right to vote.
As the centrepiece of the theatre’s Of Woman Born season, Bridget Foreman’s compelling, celebratory, skilfully staged but overlong play involving more than 350 “community collaborators” depicts an historic moment of genuine female solidarity and empowerment, drawing inspiration from the forgotten story of Annie Seymour Pearson who joined up with other local heroines following Pankhurst’s call for direct action.
The scenes involving Annie’s transformation from quiet middle-class respectability to fearless convicted law-breaker are well-developed and superbly acted by Barbara Marten, with compelling performances too from key community cast members.
The huge ensemble portrays everyone else, from force-fed suffragettes to conniving politicians, with some gorgeously arranged mass choral work underscoring the narrative. But if Annie’s personal struggle for justice sometimes feels overwhelmed by the production’s epic ambitions, the end result is a potent reminder of how women helped achieve the ballot box equality we enjoy today by putting the rage into suffragette.