At the weekend, a few of us from Write Now wandered down to the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield and were thoroughly entertained by the latest Red Ladder production – “Wrong ‘Un, A Suffragette’s Story”, written by Boff Whalley and performed by Ella Harris, directed by Justin Audibert. I didn’t know much about the show beforehand. I knew it was about suffragettes (clue in the title); I assumed it involved some kind of altercation with the main character (again from the title); and I had read that it was a one woman musical. This was confusing to me – musicals are loud and big and extravagant. Now, I don’t mean to brag, but I know musicals. I’ve seen all the Andrew Lloyd Webbers, I have the soundtrack to mostly every musical in my car and I can recite the whole of Moulin Rouge, dances included in at least two languages. When I hear the word “musical” I think The Producers, Hairspray, Wicked! Wrong ‘Un has one actor. And no accompanying orchestra. But I was pleasantly surprised by the singing suffragette. Annie’s musical interludes were a cappella and this fit in nicely with the whole tone of the show.
Aside from the musical confusion, when I learned that the whole play was performed by one person, I was a little reticent. I love watching plays in which the conversation flows between the characters and watching their personalities and relationships build and evolve. Dialogue is obviously a huge part of any play so I wasn’t sure about sitting and watching one person on her own for all that time. But, Ella Harris is such an engaging performer, that the hour flew right by! She brought many other characters to life in that hour, all through the eyes of Miss Annie Wilde, our wild (get it?) but lovable heroine.
The whole piece is interwoven with tales from Annie’s past as she shares her story. During these tales, we meet stock characters from her life; the teacher, the policeman, the mill owner (at least I think it was a mill owner…I was listening, promise!),the judge … and there was another one that I can’t now recall. Each character that we meet through Annie is a representation of how she sees them. They usually prattle on about their wives at home and how Annie is a “wrong ‘un”. Probably because she isn’t a wife herself and out and about meddling in things that should not concern a young woman like her. (I did just type “young lady like her” but she is no lady, which she readily admits and isn’t an insult).
Annie is such a likeable character. As a Lancashire lass in London, she certainly stands out from the crowd. It turns out that she’s been standing out from the crowd all along. At school, she was the only girl who wanted to play football, which the teacher finds thoroughly amusing, saying “girls don’t play football! girls sew and [other sexist stereotypes]…”
As Annie’s story progresses, she finds herself embroiled in the thick of the suffragette movement. She hands out leaflets, she protests outside parliament and when the war starts she hands out white feathers to the men that had stayed at home. She pursues what she believes in and ends up in jail because of it. In jail, she does what any other suffragette would do and begins the hunger strike. Subsequently, she suffers horribly and endures countless force-feedings before she is released from prison early for being too weak. I must admit, this part of the play was quite difficult to listen to. Annie describes her ordeal in quite graphic detail, but the most upsetting thing was the way that the female nurses wouldn’t even look her in the eye as they held her down with the tube twisting down her throat and into her stomach.
While at first, Annie may have come across as a little ditsy and comical, her experiences with the suffragettes affected her very much. A turning point comes when her brother comes down to London to visit. She is so happy to see him and they have a lovely day in the park. Its as if she momentarily forgets all about the war and gets lost in reminiscing about home. But then she remembers who she has become and what she has been working for. She quietly hands her brother a white feather.
The most important theme for me in this play is the importance of feminism. The sacrifice that many women made so that we can have the opportunities they could only dream of. I hope we’re all making the most of the privileges that those women worked so hard for.