Contact Young Company at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.
8 March 2018.
Within the historic brick walls of the Museum of Science and Industry’s 1830 Warehouse there’s a revolution brewing. And I don’t mean the cast munching on Lady Doritos in cheeky defiance of the listed building’s “no food and drink allowed” rule!
Lady Doritos? Later…
Just as the warehouse would once have echoed with the hustle and bustle of trains, cargo deliveries and working men, it is filled to the brim with voices once again. This time it’s mostly the sound of women – loud, assured and taking ownership of the space.
Contact’s ever inventive Young Company have collaborated with Sh!t Theatre’s glorious Louise Mothersole and Rebecca Biscuit, and Manchester-based powerhouses Cheryl Martin and Keisha Thompson, to develop a multi-faceted and spiky response to the centenary of the passing of the Representation of the People Act. Voting rights for (some) women and the ongoing struggle for equality inspires an outburst of thoughts, testimony, comedy and music.
Partly documentary in style, it recreates and reimagines historic events with passion and vigour. More significantly it also cherishes stories of neglected figures within the suffragette movement, and of more diverse voices from history – activists like Sophia Duleep Singh, the daughter of an exiled Punjabi maharajah, who threw herself at Lloyd George’s car.
Personal and contemporary reflections jostle with the historic and political. A tale of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a supporter of the early 20th century Irish Women’s Franchise League, is given resonance by being recounted by his great-great-niece. Milestones such as the first woman to vote or the country’s first black female MP are recalled in tandem with individual stories of current inequality and discrimination.
It’s refreshingly irreverent. “Keeping up with the Pankhursts” affectionately pokes fun at the high-profile ‘first family’ of the suffragette movement and Winston Churchill gets a bit of a kicking for his opposition to women’s voting rights. The aforementioned Lady Doritos (“not too loud and easy to fit in a handbag”) reappear as part of a video montage mocking the insidious gender marketing that underpins some consumer products. Even the wonderful ‘house band’ Powerful Women can’t resist a wry joke at the expense of their name as they introduce themselves as Margaret Thatcher on drums, Arlene Foster on guitar and Theresa May on cello. But it also has a tougher sharper humour – the sight of hunger-strikers being brutally force-fed beneath the words ‘Afternoon Tea’ leaves a bitter taste.
Music plays a big role and is used to powerful effect. Just as the suffragettes changed the words of popular songs to subvert their meaning so the company appropriate the tunes of today for their own purposes. The use of live music and vocals brings a thrilling sense of immediacy – soundtracking celebration, providing a channel for self-expression or demonstrating the strength to be found when a disparate group of voices express themselves in unison.
It’s a show that celebrates action, especially radical action. “Deeds not words”. The cast marvel at how the suffragettes’ campaign of disruption resulted in 52 violent attacks in one month alone. In an exhilarating spoken section, then and now collide, as a young woman exhorts her contemporaries to “stand up now or become suspects”. As the sound of a galloping horse grows ever closer she reflects on her decision to take action. “Does it make me good? No! It makes me here” she proclaims, as the trampling hooves seem to engulf this modern-day Emily Davison.
Edgy and deliberately untidy – it channels a rebellious youthful swagger, a can-do DIY aesthetic. Even the cast’s hand-made slogan t-shirts speak their minds. “DO NOT WANT KIDS”. “CURRENTLY BLEEDING”. “OESTROGEN FUELLED”. High on energy – the production mixes animation, video and imagery with sequences of fast furious movement. Fairylight-speckled bicycles circle the space at speed and the music is often transporting.
She Bangs The Drums grabs hold of history and gives it a good shake, while casting a thoughtful gaze over the problems women face today. It may be informed by the past, but it’s lively, empowered and very present.
Image by Benji Reid