This is a magnificent show which, I think, features all the hallmarks of a five-star Fringe experience: a stunning, polished and dedicated performance; thoughtful, carefully created set and costume; a supremely interesting story, bringing new perspective to an event in social history; evocative production; and, above all, sheer entertainment for its duration, which is gripping from start to finish. I have no doubt that the enthusiasm shown by the audience on the day I attended continues to be replicated throughout its run.
In this anniversary year of women achieving limited voting rights in 1918, suffragettes have made the news again. Joanne Hartstone’s show is a brilliant and timely contribution to the backstory of this important historical feat.
Most of us have by now heard of Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903 to campaign for women’s suffrage. We’ve probably also heard of Emily Davison, whose enthusiasm for the movement’s cause led to her being trampled by the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. But I don’t suppose many if any in the audience have already heard of Muriel Matters, whose inspiring and marvellous story is told here.
Each episode of Muriel’s life is portrayed brilliantly by Hartstone, who positively becomes the larger-than-life Muriel. A slide for the title of each chapter is projected behind her – in the style of early films – guiding us through Muriel’s humble beginnings as an elocution teacher in her native South Australia, through sea passage to the UK and residence in London, then joining and becoming a prominent member of the suffragettes.
We are entertained by her antics, like hiding in the House of Commons to become the first female speaker, and going up in a balloon to send publicity leaflets emblazoned with the words ‘Votes for Women’ flying over London. She was imprisoned more than once, for disorderly conduct, and for chaining herself to the railings – and throwing away the key, so that the railings had to be sawn off and carried to gaol with her.
The show is not a mere history lesson, though. We are treated to accounts of Muriel’s love interests, and entertained by her personality: she utilised her elocution and presentation skills to the max throughout her career, and Hartstone captures her power brilliantly.
Throughout the story, Hartstone commands the stage and her audience's attention, just as Muriel must once have done – making a first-class appearance which moved and inspired me to know more. Although it seems that Hartstone packs as much into an hour as is known about Muriel, who's buried now in Hastings on the English south coast – whilst also having become the subject of a society named after her in her native Australia.