pilot theatre presents

21 June 2017 – 1 July 2017

Everything Is Possible (2017)

"Everything Is Possible affirms that anything is possible when a community comes together"

The York Press

Damian Cruden has no hesitation in naming his greatest achievement in his 20 years as artistic director at York Theatre Royal: the rise and rise of the community play.

The city already had the York Mystery Plays, the street plays staged in myriad forms through the centuries, and when Cruden and Riding Lights' Paul Burbridge directed the 2012 plays on their return to the Museum Gardens, a template was established for the series of community productions that has ensued.

Each has told a chapter of York's history: the chocolate industry in the dark shadow of the First World War in Blood + Chocolate on the city streets; the rise and fall of the Railway King, George Hudson, in In Fog And Falling Snow at the National Railway Museum, and now the York Suffragettes in Everything Is Possible, outside the Minster and in the Theatre Royal's main house.

A rabble noise swells from the Minster Plaza, a canny way to make the city aware that a major production of political dimensions involving more than 300 people is taking place in their midst at a time when the political landscape is more divisive and more inflammatory than for years. The scene, a throng of rebel songs and impassioned speeches, replicates demonstrations of yore, suddenly suffused by placard-waving Suffragettes in 1913 attire, followed by policemen forcibly breaking up the crowd.

The likes of Sophie Walmsley on her acoustic guitar need to placed higher above the crowd, but where Barbara Marten's Annie Seymour Pearson takes her place on the Plaza steps is a better sight line.

"Deeds Not Words" say the placards: a mantra that wholly applies to how these community plays are mounted, volunteers to the fore on and off stage, this time under the guidance of a professional production team led by the Theatre Royal associate director Juliet Forster and Pilot Theatre associate director Katie Posner.

Once we are ushered by the coppers to the theatre, there is a little lull for chatter and drinks refuelling before Bridget Foreman's account of the previously untold story of York's involvement in the Suffragette movement circa 1913 has its day and has its say.

Marten and Suffragettes historian Professor Krista Cowman have played significant parts in bringing the story to the stage, so too have Foreman and a research team, and now at last the role of Annie Seymour Pearson and her Suffragette safe house at 14, Heworth Green, next to the home of anti-Suffragette campaigner Edith Milner, has its rightful place in the city's history.

Barbara Marten might strike some in the audience as being a little old for her role as a mother of four young children, but Foreman places her as much in the role of a narrator looking back on the events of a century ago as that of protagonist in the drama, and all of Marten's passion for the story, as well as her celebrated acting skills come to the fore.

York, it must be said, played rather less of a central role in the Suffragette drive for votes for women than it did in this year's General Election with its visits by Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, it played not even second fiddle to London and Leeds, but Emmeline Pankhurst (Liz Elsworth), leader of the British suffragette movement, made a speech here that forms the climax of the first half; leading Leeds campaigner Leonora Cohen (Loretta Smith) visited too, as did Lilian Lenton, the wild-card London arsonist, played by the breakthrough new talent of this show, University of York student Annabel Lee. A firecracker indeed, a professional career surely awaits.

Annie's arrest in London for obstructing a policeman – when he had been the one to inflict a bloody nose – and the militant activities of the Women's Social and Political Union in York, led by Jo Smith's Violet Key Jones, are prominent in the play, A silent movie-style film sequence linked to live action shows the full horror of the prison practice of force-feeding hunger-strikers, showing off Sara Perks's set to best effect too.

Men have their place in the piece in the form of Mark France's Arthur Seymour Pearson (rather reminiscent of the husband figure in Brief Encounter) and Rory Mulvihill's stentorian Home Secretary; a choir of 100 are tucked away out of sight in the gods, assembled by Madeleine Hudson to perform Ivan Stott's folk-rooted campaigning compositions, but rightly they have their moment in the spotlight on stage at the finale.

Forster and Posner's very lively, highly committed, educational and resolute production, peppered with anarchic humour as much as political zeal, forms the pinnacle of York Theatre Royal's Of Woman Born season of women's words and deeds. In straitened times for funding for the arts, Everything Is Possible affirms that anything is possible when a community comes together and turns York into Suffragette City.

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