This is an interesting experience from start to finish, as we are treated to moments from Sylvia Pankhurst’s life. With such a title you would expect it to be intensely political and that is certainly the case: very much through the eyes and life experience of our protagonist. She is clear at the beginning that this isn’t a recitation of facts, that if we are after facts, we will be disappointed; but that the truth will be shown. It’s a neat device to allow the playwright and director Rob Johnston the scope with which to add for dramatic purposes.
Emma Laidlaw is utterly believable as Sylvia
Sylvia introduces and proceeds to narrate the show, and takes us through key moments of her life from pre First World War to the Second World War. She starts as a 19 year old idealistic young woman and student of the Royal College of Art who wants to paint real women, not the portraits and vacuous poses that appear in palaces and museums. She travels to different areas of Britain and meets all manner of women: potato pickers, factory workers and farm workers for example, and experiences first hand the inequality of class and how this leads to poverty and hardship. She admits she is repulsed by some, from her protected standpoint. She tries to instigate change but is thwarted by the privileged upper classes, becomes a socialist, then communist.
Actor Emma Laidlaw plays Sylvia in this one woman show, which also incorporates some multi-rolling, which she does brilliantly. The switch to Winston Churchill, to upper class “well meaning" woman as she calls it, to Mussolini, to Oswald Mosley are clear and precise. Her physicality also changes with who she is portraying, including a hint of facial jowls of Churchill; tone of voice and accents. The timing is tight with appropriate sound effects running alongside the words in places. Emma Laidlaw is utterly believable as Sylvia.
There are some funny moments, although this isn’t a comedy. Sylvia’s idealism is enchanting and hopelessly naïve. She keeps hoping for the revolution and at three points opens her arms wide to celebrate and embrace that “the revolution has started!” and time and again is proved wrong. There is a lovely, poignant and moving section concerning the treatment of an Italian tailor who is taken away for simply being Italian, as soon as Mussolini declares Italy on the side of Hitler in the Second World War; with the tailor's daughter waiting at the window for his promised return.
This is a thought-provoking piece, but because it is totally narrated and told to the audience, feels almost like a history lecture told by a gifted performer, compounded by there being only the briefest of interactions between the characters. The ending, although moving, feels a little too much; even if you agree with Sylvia’s politics.