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Rhondda Rips It Up! review at Riverfront, Newport – ‘a rip-roaring salute’

Madeleine Shaw and Lesley Garrett in Welsh National Opera's Rhondda Rips It Up. Photo: Betina Skovboro
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It’s an understatement that Viscountess Rhondda, Margaret Haig Mackworth (née Thomas), has suffered historical neglect.

A pioneering Welsh suffragette and businesswoman; a Lusitania survivor who left her husband for a female lover; founder of the influential periodical Time and Tide and more – she nonetheless remains largely unknown.

100 years since partial women’s suffrage spurred on the equality battle, Welsh National Opera are celebrating her with a new cabaret-opera, Rhondda Rips It Up! By composer Elena Langer and librettist Emma Jenkins, and with a brilliant all-female cast, creative team and 10-piece onstage ensemble conducted by Nicola Rose, the show is as maverick as its heroine.

This is no serious feminist disquisition or sombre social biography. Ribald and irreverent, Rhondda’s story becomes an Edwardian-inspired music hall entertainment, narrated by fabulous male-impersonator MC, Lesley Garrett. Playing multiple roles, she and the gender-bending women of the WNO Chorus – with star turns from the audience-seated WNO Community Chorus – gleefully lampoon everything from the House of Lords to polite ladies’ tea parties and elocution lessons.

Smartly directed by Caroline Clegg on Lara Booth’s wood-panelled set, the burlesque never overwhelms the purpose – nor delivery of words sung or spoken, as Langer’s delicate, imaginative score traverses jazz and popular styles with aplomb. Sudden mood shifts highlight the critical issues, with mezzo Madeleine Shaw proving a superb Rhondda, poignantly supported by singer-actor sisters.

If the fetishisation of cakes, ballot boxes and penises raises eyebrows, perhaps the point is that – still, today – genuine equality remains elusive for women while conflicting stereotypes of humourless feminism and chick-lit triviality persist. Rhondda’s response is to rip up the rulebooks and magnificently thumb a nose.

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A rip-roaring music hall salute to a pioneering suffragette