Writer: Bridget Foreman
Directors: Juliet Forster, Katie Posner
Designer: Sara Perks
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Everything is Possible: The York Suffragettes is a remarkable achievement made possible by York Theatre Royal and Pilot Theatre. Juliet Forster and Katie Posner keep impressive control of a cast of 150 and in all, an astonishing 350 volunteers (actors, choir, wardrobe, props, etc.) bring off this ambitious project triumphantly.
The suffragette movement in York was fairly late starting and had a history rather less dramatic than many other cities, but in a way, Bridget Foreman and the researchers and historians who set up the play, have used this to advantage. Everything is Possible emphasises the ordinariness of women who, quite untypically, chose to break the law in pursuit of the vote. Chief among them is Annie Seymour Pearson, not one of the major militants of the movement, but the only York suffragette to have been imprisoned, though only briefly, and a significant figure for her work is providing a safe house, concealing suffragettes on the run from the police.
The spectacle in Everything is Possible is partly due to its physical spread. Evening performances begin with a “demonstration” outside the Minster, not terribly convincing but lacking nothing in scale, with 21st Century women entertaining with songs of protest or declaiming generic calls to action. Suddenly it all seems more real as the meeting is invaded by genteelly determined suffragettes. When the police move them on, they move us on, too, audience and the crowd scene of community actors, down to the theatre where the auditorium is alive with the sound of protest.
Shrill voices constantly screaming “Votes for Women!” or “No votes for women!” from stage to circle can in truth get a little wearing, but it’s all part of the successful attempt to immerse the audience in the action. The play itself tells the story of Mrs Seymour Pearson, a comfortable middle-class supporter of the Primrose League, and her belated awareness of the need for reform, her imprisonment following a London demonstration and her determined support for the movement in a more domestic role. Her story is intermingled with the more general history of the suffragettes, with plenty of crowd scenes and individual stories, notably of the redoubtable Leonora Cohen of Leeds (Loretta Smith, splendidly forthright) and the (literally) fiery Lilian Lenton (a vividly committed Annabel Lee). There is even newsreel of Emily Davison’s death at the 1913 Derby, after which a slightly over-long play comes to a surprisingly rapid conclusion: a quick glimpse of the Great War, a touch of narrative and we’re into the final expansive scene as modern-day women cast their votes.
Foreman’s script is often predictable, with two-dimensional characters, but it serves admirably in creating opportunities for the community cast to revel in epic theatre. Forster and Posner boldly throw everything into the mix, from the excellent unseen choir directed by Madeleine Hudson to the pastiches of silent comedy films: the police surveillance following the Cat and Mouse Act presented Keystone Kops-style!
As Annie Seymour Pearson, Barbara Marten is far more than the visiting professional; her research helped to focus on Mrs Pearson and she holds the evening together with strength and sensitivity. The supporting community cast makes its mark admirably, from Mark France’s gently amusing portrayal of Mr Pearson to the varied troupe of suffragettes, more and less militant; from the forces of law and order, both sympathetic and cynical, to the very small boy with the authentic news vendor’s shout.
Runs until 1 July 2017 | Image: Anthony Robling