“A dastardly attempt was made in the early hours of yesterday morning by suffragists to fire and blow up Burns’s Cottage, Alloway, the birthplace of the national poet,” reported the Glasgow Herald on 9 July 1914. “The attempted outrage … to destroy a shrine that Scotsmen in all parts of the world regard as sacred has roused in the locality the most intense indignation.”

As performers, Marshall and McGregor work well together, also giving some “real welly” to a couple of Burns’s songs

Victoria Bianchi’s CauseWay is an active reimagining of that failed plot, the wider campaign for women’s equality which inspired it, and more general questions about the aims and methods utilised by civil rights campaigners down the decades. Quite deliberately, the play is given added poignancy by its scheduling – launching the spring 2016 season of A Play, A Pie and Pint (at Glasgow’s Òran Mór) on the birthdate of Robert Burns, during a year in which the commemorations of the First World War are likely to rise given as we approach the centenaries of some of its bloodiest battles.

First on stage is the energetic Stephanie McGregor who primarily plays Ethel Moorhead; it’s her emotional journey, from bumptious ignorance to determined survivor of prison mistreatment, which forms the spine of the play. Beth Marshall, meantime, has the subtler task of giving life to Frances Parks, the more seasoned suffragette campaigner who devises the proposed arson on Burns’s Cottage. Not as an attack of the man himself, it’s made clear – even if he wasn’t exactly a feminist. It was an attack on a monument of the patriarchal Establishment that had deliberately twisted Burns’s words into a patriotism that she knows will lead thousands of young men to their deaths.

This is one aspect of the play where hindsight clearly informs what’s going on, although CauseWay is never explicit about when it’s supposedly being “told”. Indeed, it’s intrinsic; Ethel’s grandstanding defiance in court, quoting Burns and imagining a “people of tomorrow” who will live “in a world of equality”, is clearly meant as a reminder of the numerous inequalities between genders, classes and races that still characterise our society, a century later. “A storm of change is coming,” we’re told, but given the need for ongoing campaigns for equal pay and equal representation in the major institutions of our lives, it’s a storm hasn’t left us yet.

Director Debbie Hannan keeps things plain and simple, wooing us with old Music Hall numbers before the start, and later cheekily employing the audience in the role of – well – an audience at a public meeting against women’s suffrage, where some contemporary justifications against giving women the vote are rightly held up to 21st century ridicule. As performers, Marshall and McGregor work well together, also giving some “real welly” to a couple of Burns’s songs, but there remains the problem of the script’s all-too-strident call-to-arms at the close, which unfortunately risks the very danger that the script itself had raised earlier – of the message being lost in the way it’s delivered.

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The Blurb

CauseWay is based on a true story of Frances Parker and Ethel Moorhead, two suffragettes who, in 1914, cycled to the Robert Burns’ cottage armed with a mission and pipe bombs. From their first meeting to Ethel’s eventual incarceration, it explores the story of two women, and of one cause that divided a nation. Weaving the songs of Burns together with the politics of the suffragettes, CauseWay invites us to join with Frances and Ethel in their journey towards a fairer world and asks whether, over 100 years later, we’ve arrived at our destination.

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