Venue: York Theatre Royal
As I wandered down to the Minster on a sleepy monday evening, I was unsure what I would be greeted with. What I was met with was intriguing to say the least; a packed crowd interspersed with placards, chants, and individual performers, all rallying for the same goal- gender equality. Was this chaotic? Perhaps, but it was this very sense of excitement, and vulnerability as an audience member, which left me strangely choked up as I spied a middle aged man to the left of me enthusiastically chanting “Who run the world? Girls!”. Protest was in the air, and a sense of hope was tangible. This was not, however, a spontaneous “Women’s march”, but a prologue of sorts to York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre’s collaborative community production, “Everything Is Possible”, an exploration of York’s involvement in the campaign for women’s suffrage in the early 19th century. From the beginning, it was clear that this production was created by a community, for a community, as audience and cast members stood together alongside our city’s most iconic landmark. This modern day protest was interrupted by a group of poised and pressed suffragettes with their cries of “votes for women!”, effortlessly transferring us from this modern protest for women rights, into one that occurred over 100 years ago.
Once settled back into the confines of the York Theatre Royal, the story began to unfold. The plot centred upon the real story of Annie Seymour Pearson, played by the formidable Barbara Marten, York’s only suffragette to serve time in prison. However, with a cast of 150 individuals, the tale of Pearson’s personal journey from comfortable housewife to militant suffragette was by no means the solitary storyline of the piece. We were met with an abundance of characters and, of course, their own experiences within the fight for women’s suffrage. Loretta Smith’s performance of real life Leeds lady, Leonora Cohen, was a real stand out performance. Smith’s vivid, strong and effortless portrayal of firehouse Leonora Cohen was rewarded with delighted murmurs from the audience when the militant suffragette admitted that she would appear in the “courts of bleedin’ injustice” in the future – but as a magistrate, not a militant prisoner. Beth Sitek should also be praised here for her performance of Mabel, Pearson’s hard-working maid, whose transformation from quiet, obedient servant to a politically engaged protester for women’s suffrage was a delight to watch. Likewise, Annabelle Lee should be commended for her energetic and fiery performance of militant suffragette, Lilian Lenton.
The production reached its full potential during scenes where large sections of the cast were brought together with ambitious technical aspects, with movement director Jon Beney, designer Sara Perks and light designer Prema Mehta being singled out for praise here. In a particularly moving scene, real footage from Black Friday was projected onto a gauze, behind which a huge section of the cast performed a tightly woven movement piece. The energy and violence of the conflict was made clear, with projections of the real suffragettes falling onto the moving bodies on stage. It was in moments such as this which reminded the audience of the sheer reality of the piece. We were not watching a fabricated fiction, but a fleshed out representation of a historical reality, an incredible achievement for both cast and crew.
At times the weight of this huge project could be felt, with the first act seeming slightly overwhelming due to amount of information being thrown at the audience. Certain subplots seemed disappointing when not followed through, or somewhat random when given to us without much of a context – what happened to the mother and daughter campaigning against female suffrage? Romantic two-step aside, how did Lilian muster the courage to kiss Lottie in a quiet post-war Yorkshire street, and what happened to their seemingly ill—fated romance? My disappointment here could be read as criticism: however, it only goes to show the tantalizing range of questions and themes thrown up in this extraordinarily vibrant community production. As the cast and choir stood side by side on stage during the plays closing minutes, singing a rendition of “Everything Is Possible”, it was hard not to be roused and inspired, not just by the political achievements of the York Suffragettes, but also by the sense of solidarity that can be achieved when a modern day community takes up the task of telling such a story.