Vital Spark Theatre's Rebel Women

Having just witnessed Vital Spark Theatre’s Rebel Women, created and directed by Joan Bryans, I’m thinking any student of history would have been able to predict the power of a determined group of women.

Rebel Women traces the suffragette fight to win the vote for English women starting with the exclusionary Reform Bill of 1832. Using extracts from actual speeches and personal journals throughout, the first act is mostly a pastiche of vignettes that shows the the ambivalence of women’s attitudes towards gaining the vote.

Marriages could fall apart and society disintegrate. Scary stuff, much the same as many American women in the 1970’s felt had when it came to choosing a side in the doomed battle for the Equal Rights Amendment. Kinda like the current debate about gay marriage going on for some. 

Vital Spark Theatre's Rebel Women

It’s just before intermission when matters come to a head with the jailing and force feeding of a small group of die-hard zealots that the story really takes off. As staged, the production becomes less of a primer for Gender Studies 101 and begins to grab hold of our collective gut. Why was the brutality necessary and why did polite society let it happen? Why did it take until 1918 for English women to be mostly successful in their battle to be considered equal? These are hard questions with even more difficult answers.

The second act of nearly two-hour play goes from strength to strength both in characterization and audience engagement. Notwithstanding some of the terrorist tactics utilized, we want the women to succeed and we want to be there when it happens. Sure WWI gets in the way and that is off-putting but the war becomes a catalyst for making the women’s cause even stronger. In the end justice prevails and we all go home happy.

The ensemble cast of 15 acquit themselves well. Director Bryans gives most a moment or two to shine in the spotlight. I noted that Barbara Ellison as Emmaline Pankhurst, Barbara Kozicki as Miss Annie Kenney, and Lindsay Nelson as Christobel Pankhurst were strong among the female roles. Gavin LeClair, channeling a modern day David Cameron, was particularly outstanding among the men as the oily politician Asquith.

To capture the mood of the times, Musical Director Pat Unruh punctuates the performance with tunes taken from the suffragette songbook. No voice stands out but the cast’s enthusiasm for sharing is palpable.

Vital Spark Theatre's Rebel Women

Sean Malmus‘ staging is simple but effective. Particularly well executed is the suggestion of the cellblock. With just half-panel cut-outs, a few sticks and effective lighting we could sense the dank confines the women were placed. The short video clip showing the death of Emily Davison is jarring but essential in convincing us that personal sacrifice is not easy nor pretty.  

It was a nice touch incorporating British-born (later Vancouver Alderman) Helena Gutteridge onto the storyline. Knowing that Vancouver is the city it is today because of fighters like her gladdens my heart. Great people can and do accomplish great things.

Leaving the theatre I got to thinking about what modern-day young women would think of this play. Given most young adults don’t bother to vote, would they be cheering for those who won them the legal rights they neglect today? I do hope so.  

Rebel Women continues through January 12 at the Jericho Arts Centre. Photos by Nancy Caldwell.

About Our Contributor Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini enjoys Vancouver's vibrant theatre scene and has taken in many productions over the years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University. Larry is financially involved with the film Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Josh Epstein, directed by Kyle Rideout, and starring Michael Eklund.

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  • Pingback by Acting | Sarah Ripplinger — August 18, 2015 @ 12:31 am

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