dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Light-hearted look at votes for women
In Birmingham, we're used to seeing the Welsh National Opera in huge theatres performing epic works, so it's refreshing to see the company turn its hand to this more cabaret style small-scale show.
Performed at Midlands Arts Centre, Rhondda Rips It Up! takes us back a century to the time of the suffragettes and their battle to gain votes for women. Rhondda is Margaret Haig Thomas, also known as Lady Rhondda, who campaigned for women's voting rights – to the point of prison.
But this is by no means a dour depiction of downtrodden women – rather Rhondda Rips It Up! is a lot of fun. Composed by Elena Langer with a libretto by Emma Jenkins, there's a light-hearted touch to the women's fight as they take on the might of Parliament.
Bearing in mind Lesley Garrett's standing in the world of opera, it's surprising to see her in a smaller scale production but she's clearly revelling in it. Playing the part of the Emcee, she takes on different roles from the gun-toting husband of Margaret to her sombre and devoted father. There's a real air of mischief to Garrett as she romps her way through these roles, indulging in a bit of double entendre and a sly wink here and there.
Madeleine Shaw is the firebrand Lady Rhondda who is determined to ensure equality for women. Grasping the suffragette cause by the throat, she buries explosives by the blackcurrant bush in her garden and attempts to blow up a post box – earning her a spell in prison. Here we see her more serious side as she mourns her loss of liberty and decries the loneliness of her cell.
The duo are given plenty of support from the rest of the all-female cast who switch and change roles from suffragettes to waiters to police officers and politicians as the story determines.
Directed by Caroline Clegg and designed by Lara Booth, there are some lovely touches to this show which, despite being professional, also gives a nod to amateur stage with some slapstick props and costumes such as the blackberry bush being a performer in an A-board and a car being created from chairs, umbrellas and a cymbal.
Live music is provided by a group of performers on stage who blend into the background as fellow suffragettes but ensure the tunes are to the fore. Sometimes the music is a little too much to the fore and it can be hard to hear some of the libretto which is a shame when clearly so much thought has gone into writing it.
Rhondda Rips It Up! is of course, being performed in the year which celebrates the centenary of votes for women and there's a feeling of triumphalism about it – and yet the production finishes with a curtain call song which includes the audience singing 'We won't surrender until it's done' – a timely reminder that there's still a long way to go for full gender equality.
Premiered in Newport two nights before Birmingham, Rhondda Rips It Up! tours the UK with more dates in June and then in the autumn. See wno.org.uk/rhondda for more information.