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Songs of Solidarity, Suffrage & Strength review

Leeds-based Theatre Company Red Ladder present an evening of song and suffrage.

Wrong 'Un. Photographer: Tim Smith.

This month Red Ladder present Songs of Solidarity, Suffrage & Strength – a double-bill of drama and music at Leeds City Varieties.

Wrong ‘Un is the opening piece, a single act one-hander musical written by Chumbawamba guitarist Boff Whalley. The play traces the life of Annie Wilde, a tenacious Lancashire-born girl who strives for equality in her formative years. From challenging her schoolmaster, to her employer in the mill and then a High Court judge, Annie Wilde seeks equality in an England which is quickly changing on the eve of war. Her arrival in London as part of the suffragette movement, rubbing shoulders with Emmeline Pankhurst, is the start of a brave new world for her generation.

All writing has a political agenda, whether it is a conscious intention by the writer or not. Shows which have an explicit political element can often become preachy or intolerably worthy, and there are a fair number of angry feminist plays which fall into that category. Fortunately Wrong ‘Un is not one of those leaden shows and is impeccably written as both an entertaining and provoking piece of theatre. Superbly scripted, Whalley’s dialogue has a fresh contemporary feel to it, whilst steeped in traditional Lancashire phrasing. “Me sen,” and other fading colloquialisms crop up, echoing voices of yesteryear which audiences will recognise as that of their parents or grandparents.  Annie Wilde’s monologue, punctuated with lilting a cappella songs, is vividly authentic; her tales of treatment during hunger strikes and ‘agitating’ are harrowing, whilst her songs are playfully cheeky with an underscored sadness. The period setting may be in the distant past, but Annie’s dreams and desires are wholly contemporary with easily drawn modern comparisons. As such, there is a direct engagement between the show’s protagonist and the 21st century audience; many will be asking what they would have done if they were Annie Wilde.

Ella Harris delivers an outstanding performance, imbruing warmth and charm as Wilde. If direct comparisons were to be drawn, she has the comic warmth of Victoria Wood with the dramatic intensity a young Janet Henfrey. Her performance is directly engaged with the audience, often moving into the stalls in traditional Music Hall style. Harris even makes light of her inability to find a pocket in one scene, which is charmingly in-character and wholly real.  Sustaining the show for an hour and playing a host of characters within the characterisation of Annie Wilde, Harris reaches admirable heights of realism.

The simplicity of the show’s staging and direction, with an added verisimilitude thanks to the period setting of City Varieties as a venue, makes Wrong ‘Un an intense theatrical experience and an insightful window onto the past.

The evening closes with a gig by folk duo O’Hooley & Tidow, with cuts from their new album The Hum, due for release in February. Heidi Tidow performs with pianist Belinda O’Hooley a number of songs about home, mothers and beer. The lyrics are evocative love letters which audiences will associate with, whilst the music is soothingly elegiac. The Hum, a song about the undulating noise of a factory, is especially indelible with a stirringly hypnotic melody which resonates far beyond its live performance. Tidow has an airy, smoky voice with Irish folk influences, whilst O’Hooley has a softer tonality with her piano, forming a combination of moving harmonies. Heartfelt and rousing, O’Hooley & Tidow are the perfect compliment to Wrong ‘Un and it’s easy to see why Red Ladder have paired the two performances together.

A heartfelt combination of voices from the past and present, Songs of Solidarity, Suffrage & Strength is an evening of high-class entertainment buttressed with unique and admirable talent.

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