This play had to be called something, and it is interesting that the writer plumped for Emmeline rather than Pankhurst, given the presence of four on-stage Pankhursts, plus more spoken of in the narrative. There are tributes to Keir Hardie (1856-1915) (Charlie Buckland), the first parliamentary leader of the Labour Party, and his efforts to campaign for votes for women. But the play makes abundantly clear quite how strictly controlled Emmeline’s Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was. Her daughter Christabel (1880-1958) (Lily-Fleur Bradbury) was, as this production would have it, even more of a dictator, giving ‘orders’ – her own terminology – in a terse manner (at least Emmeline (1858-1928) (Georgie Rhys) gave instructions encouragingly).
The show has the decency to allow audiences to draw whatever contemporary parallels there are in the story, whether it quarrels between family members, senior politicians saying something and doing something substantially different, or having to adapt to changing circumstances, without the need to spell out modern-day struggles. This is, overall, an ambitious play, covering three decades in an evening – and it manages to do so without feeling as though it has glossed over certain matters.
A note in the programme emphasises that “dramatic license has been taken for the purpose of the storytelling” – invariably, who said what to whom and when may not necessarily be accurate down to the last detail. It’s a good thing for the production to have pointed this out – this isn’t to be taken, scene by scene, line by line, as gospel. The result, nonetheless, is very good theatre. The dramatic tension may be rather heightened and relentless (there’s so much shouting, particularly in the second half, that I occasionally wondered if I was watching an episode of EastEnders) but that is better than either melodrama or nonchalance.
It’s not, by any means, a perfect show. There’s a lot of talk, ironically, about “deeds not words” – there’s definitely more of the latter. The portrayal of police and prison warder brutality against women was too temperate: a dramatization of “barbaric” (as Emmeline put it) force-feeding of suffragettes on hunger strike, for instance, seemed too short and too mild-mannered to be fully convincing.
But the show also stops far short of hero worship for Emmeline. One of her younger daughters, Sylvia (1882-1960) (Charlie Hansen), pointedly asks what the deal is with subscription fees for membership of the WSPU. What she was really asking was why there weren’t any concessionary rates for women with little disposable income: isn’t that, albeit inadvertently, tantamount to exclusivity? Then there’s Emmeline wanting to know, vainly, “How will history look at me?” somewhat betraying her earlier insistence that her work is not so much for her benefit as that of all of Britain’s women.
Still, I found the different viewpoints and contradictions being presented gloriously fascinating. After Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) (Donna Coulling) sustained a fatal injury at the Epsom Derby (I don’t consider that a spoiler, frankly), Emmeline and Christabel were keen to ensure as far as possible that it should be known that Davison acted of her own accord, rather than acting on instructions supplied by the WSPU. That said, the union would nonetheless capitalise on the perception of her as a martyr. Make of that what you will.
Appropriately, there are few laughs in a show about an incessant commitment to the pursuit of women’s suffrage. Votes for women has not, more than a century after the Representation of the People Act 1918, resulted in politicians who tell the truth (ha!), but the show highlights the careful balancing act between staying true to one’s principles and doing what is necessary to achieve one’s goals. A thoughtful, well-researched and compelling production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
EMMELINE follows the journey of the inspirational leader of the Suffrage movement on her life’s mission to achieve the vote for women. Delving into the dynamics of the Pankhurst family, EMMELINE explores the tensions that arose between her and her daughter Sylvia on militant tactics and social values, emblematic of the conflicts that divided the movement.
Does the end justify the means? Should the cause come first, no matter the personal cost? A story of the courage and sacrifice of the Suffragettes, their struggle and exaltation, and their undying determination that made history.
A story to inspire the country to continue the fight for human emancipation. March on, March on, Face to the Dawn, the Dawn of Liberty!
Emmeline Pankhurst – Georgie Rhys
Sylvia Pankhurst – Charlie Morgan
Christabel Pankhurst – Lily-Fleur Bradbury
Adela Pankhurst/Keir Hardie – Lydia Vie
Emily Wilding Davison – Donna Couling
Annabel – Beatrice Hyde
Noemie – Corinne Delacour
Mr Lloyd George – David Furlong
Sir Edward Grey – Shaun Amos
Churchill – Matt Weyland
Philip Snowden – Thomas Dennis
Asquith – Paul Wilcocks
Female Ensemble Sevi Filippidou & Kristiana Mitrollari
by Beatrice Hyde
Theatre Lab Company
The Cockpit Theatre
London NW8 8EH
3 to 14 Nov 2021