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Review of Shoulder To Shoulder at Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton

Last Sunday I spent the afternoon in the Royal watching four pieces of theatre, all inspired by a celebration of 100 years of women's suffrage. It proved an emotional afternoon, with some widely contrasting pieces of theatre work.

Opening the afternoon, was a piece devised by the collaboration of Zoo Co, Stantonbury Theatre and Stantonbury International School. Titled Suffrajitsu, it turned out to be one of the more remarkable pieces of theatre that I have seen in a long time. Seeping vast emotion from me, not just from the story of the struggle it was telling, but also the sheer brilliance of some of the incredibly well-constructed scenes that this young cast handled to perfection. From its opening, of the cast simply coming onstage in their modern clothes and dressing into a traditional dress of the time, right through to the spectacular Keystone Cops inspired finale, this was a perfectly constructed piece of theatre. Finely balanced, never boring, always entertaining, always educational without the issue being forced, writer Ben Hales, along with directors and producers Lucy Cuthbertson and Flo O'Mahony had created a dream piece with their young stars.

Next on the bill and with a tough act to follow, was the very different Stan's Cafe and Royal & Derngate Actors' Company untitled collaboration. The context of this piece drifted quite away from the Suffragette theme and took more a very personal approach for each of the performers and their life experiences of their own rights or discrimination. So, themes that were highlighted included rights to marry as a same-gender couple, antisemitism, mental issues, and some particularly stirring stuff featuring positive discrimination and attitudes of (some) males to females even in this time. It was occasionally disjointed and confused, with obviously some people having a more powerful story to tell, and perhaps because of this, at 45 minutes, it was a tad too long. There was also an awkwardness to some of the performer's tales, having taken to the stage this year, I have learnt that acting purely is about being someone else of course, and here, some of the performers definitely appeared uncomfortable with being themselves. I know for certain I wouldn't be able to do it, and at times, their uncomfortableness transmitted to the audience to make some moments very awkward.

However, for me, there was a power, that wouldn't go across the whole audience, from the fact where those stories being told were by people that I know personally. Some things I knew about them, some I didn't, but either way, it had a tremendous personal impact, which I am not totally sure all audience members might have benefited from.

The third show was something even more different. Deeds Not Words from Vamos Theatre and Abingdon and Witney College, presented vignettes of social attitude pieces to females, but with all performers in full face masks and the whole of the 30-minute piece devoid of any dialogue. There were some brilliant sections, with one particularly good one highlighting a workplace item submitted by a woman and rejected and then later resubmitted by a man, and it being welcomed overwhelmingly.

The actors brought brilliant characteristics to their movements and worked their performances very well considering their lack of facial expression. While some scenes were a little heavy-handed on their storytelling, and the drive against men a little too much sometimes (although I get the point that this was the idea of the afternoon), it all made a brilliant little piece, that even without dialogue, never bored and featured some brilliant music by Janie Armour.

The final piece, the title piece, Shoulder to Shoulder, from Paper Birds and Pepper's Ghost Theatre Company was the closest to a telling of the Suffragettes story of the afternoon, but still had room for modern twists and turns, including a quite surreal time travel element. It was generally very well performed, but on occasion victim of some really weird unprofessional moments, including a totally unnecessary intervention of placard turning (which embarrassingly caused some audience mirth at a powerful scene), also if you are meant to be in the wings, please be in the wings and not some sort of nether ground where we can see you.

However, any weak moments, were more balanced out by the strength and power of the story being told. One scene where we flicked on a circle between characters and included how modern press would handle the Suffragettes story was superb, and within the piece, there were some excellent performances, not least by Carly Halse and Esther Webb.

Shoulder to Shoulder as an afternoon was an exceptionally entertaining, emotional and educational time, which I am delighted I was able to attend. Great performances at times, clever direction and invention, it was a true celebration of the Suffragettes.

Performance reviewed: Sunday 21st October 2018 at the Royal & Derngate (Royal), Northampton.
For further details about the Royal & Derngate see their website at http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk

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