The Only Way Is Suffrage, a new play from Charlotte Delaney, writer-in-residence at Oxford Women in Humanities, has run for four nights at the Burton Taylor Studio. Commemorating the recent centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, Delaney presents an hour-long interrogation of the relationship between women’s suffrage and social justice.
This play starts hopefully. There is clearly someone with an artistic eye on the creative panel because the scenery is splendid, opening up with a beautiful Edwardian kitchen scene complete with copper kettle and scullery sink. We watch as Fanny, the lady of the house, limps in on the arm of her servant Bathsheba. The initial situation is compelling: it is the day of a national census, and both women are hiding from the authorities as part of a protest for women’s suffrage. “No vote”, they later chant, “no census”.
Delaney deftly navigates the social travesties that often get lost in history alongside the highly coloured Suffragette Movement, examining our tendency to focus on the striking plights of wealthy women over the critical problems faced by poverty-stricken workers and children living on the breadline. Through the affable rapport between Fanny and Bathsheba, Delaney presents equal representation as a goal that voting rights alone cannot satisfy; Bathsheba exclaims, “I want more than votes for women. I want somebody decent for women to vote for!” Votes for women, Delaney posits, is about equality, and equality concerns the socio-economic as well as the gender divide.
Delaney deftly navigates the social travesties that often get lost in history alongside the highly coloured Suffragette Movement.
Unfortunately, the message does not develop from here, as the play starts to feel like a rather impassioned sermon. There is also a regrettable tendency for melodrama, especially in the scene where we discover the unfortunate pregnancy of 15-year-old Mags, the younger sister of Bathsheba’s mortified beau. The consistently hysterical delivery, along with the somewhat oscillatory range of broad Yorkshire accents, leaves me feeling like I am trapped in a particularly didactic Catherine Cookson film.
Delaney textures her characters well, with the sympathetic snob Fanny supporting social progress but exposing subtle moments of unconscious elitism, and much of the acting is also very good; Bathsheba in particular is convincing as a upstart servant-girl with an unexpected talent for rhetoric.
It is a shame that the play concludes with an unrealistic ending – Fanny decides to wed Gentleman Jack (a rather confusing figure whom I thought was her son until the engagement), and invites the pregnant Mags to emigrate with them to the seaside. This pantomimic finale feels contrived, awkwardly offsetting the rest of the play which stoically drills home the necessity for realism. I left feeling rather lopsided.
Overall Delaney works with a strong concept, weaving her way through the Edwardian sense of duty to family and employers as well as the hindrances of being female and impoverished, in a celebration of how far we have come along the road to liberty and social justice. Unfortunately the heavy-handed performance and fairy-tale ending takes the edge off sensitive themes like destitution and rape – but the play nevertheless has a refreshing outlook, side-lining the spectacle of suffrage and instead promoting the critical driving force for social change as the gaping gulf between the rich and the poor.
Image Credit: Oxford Playhouse