A Necessary Woman
REVIEWED BY JULIA ANDREWS-LIFFORD
A Necessary Woman Performed at the Kino-teatr
‘A Necessary Woman’ is a long overdue tribute to suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and all the important yet unrecognised women who have worked in Parliament – from the first female MPs to the women who swept the floors and built the fires.
The play begins on the eve of Census Night 1911. Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison is at the back of a tour moving through the Houses of Parliament when she takes the opportunity to hide in a cleaning cupboard and attempt to make a speech in the House of Commons on the Monday morning. All is going well until she is discovered by Mary, a servant from the Speaker’s House, who fears for her job if she doesn’t give her up.
This visually simple yet dynamic two-hander works perfectly as a piece of theatre and polemic. Locked together in the cleaning cupboard, yet separated on either side by an arched door, the minimal staging and clever script forces attention on the two women. What follows is a conversation between two disparate women of vastly different classes and backgrounds but also shared experiences of oppression and invisibility – given voice in the final ‘soapbox’ performance.
Written and performed by Deborah Clair and Phillipa Urqhart, the play artfully weaves fact and fiction. The script is fastidiously based on parliamentary records and biographical facts. Emily Davison really did hide for a weekend in a cleaning cupboard in the Houses of Parliament to get herself recorded as resident of ‘The Houses of Parliament’ in the 1911 Census – there is now a commemorative plaque that was secretly erected by Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn! And although Mary is a fictional character, she is based on the many women like her, who worked in domestic service, behind the scenes, enabling the work of government to take place before women even had a vote.
Through the simple device of the cleaning cupboard door and the dialogue between the two women, the script plays out some of the criticisms that were made against the middle class Suffragettes now and at the time: ‘wealth and privilege’ versus ‘poverty and pragmatism’. What could be a dry exposition of the debate becomes vivid through the subtle portrayal of each woman, and the cleaning cupboard door works beautifully to link and separate them. Urqhart plays Mary with comedy and heart, her motherly reprimands of “that’s naughty” sparked laughs from the packed audience, alongside deep empathy from her ‘lighting fires’ speech. Clair creates a fierce Emily ‘under the influence’ of tunnel-vision and activist adrenaline and gives the audience an insight into the mind of the woman who paid the ultimate price for the Suffragette cause. They were both ‘necessary women’ and this play is a multi-layered and thought-provoking salute to them.
• ‘A Necessary Woman’ will be returning to The Stables Theatre on 15th April 2018 after a short run across the country, including Royal Holloway College and
The Houses of Parliament.
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