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Votes for Women
Published on Friday, 18 May 2012

3 stars

Visitor Information Centre (venue website)
5, 9-12, 16-19, 23-26 May, 6:30pm-7:30pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.
 World Premiere.
 2-for-1 tickets for Friends of the Fringe members.

Liberals in power; claims of broken promises; disorder on the streets.  It might sound like yesterday, but it’s 100 years ago – and it’s the evocative backdrop for Karen Antoni’s meticulously-researched walkabout, informed by the archives of the long-gone Brighton Herald and of course, the Argus.  Starting at the Pavilion and finishing close to Western Road, there’s a fair amount of walking on this hour-long tour, but it’s well-rewarded by a wealth of detail compiled by Helen Waddup and members of the Brunswick Westward University of the Third Age.

I have to admit I’d assumed, given this tour’s specific subject matter, that the Suffragette movement was intimately linked to Brighton; but actually, the motivations are subtler than that.  Antoni presents a local snapshot of a national movement – and conveys a genuine sense of turmoil beneath the surface of society, with incongruous tales of “bellowing pandemonium” among the genteel buildings of Pavilion Gardens.  There are anecdotes of faintly comedic subterfuge smuggling women into political meetings where they were barred, and some more thought-provoking segments too: look out for the refuge where former political prisoners were taken in.

The mix of stories is well-chosen, but could do with a little more scene-setting to start the narrative.  We’re plunged straight in at the first local meeting of the militant Women’s Social and Political Union, with no real description of the frustrations and social tensions which brought us to that point.  Similarly, although the stops along the way are planned to present a roughly chronological order, the over-arching story sometimes got lost among the local detail.  Just simple changes, like starting each section by mentioning the date and what’s happening nationwide, would be enough to fix that minor flaw.

From time to time, Antoni’s scripted patter became rather stilted – a sign, to my mind, that she’s slightly too well-rehearsed.  She came alive, and was at her most engaging, when she was answering an unexpected question or just chatting as we walked along.  I wished we’d got to enjoy more of her obvious talent for making the past come to life.  I know this is easy for me to say, but it’s clear that Antoni knows her subject, and could safely have the confidence to dispense with her meticulous notes.  If she allowed herself to speak more spontaneously, I felt her passion for the topic would come more strongly through.

The tour ends with an opportunity to join Antoni in the pub, and I suggest you make the time to take her up on the offer; an hour-long tour can only scratch the surface, and the colourful view of Brighton exposed by her vignettes left me keen to find out more.  Indeed, Antoni is colourful in a literal sense – decked out in the green, white and purple regalia of the suffragettes – and the undercurrent of reforming zeal is reinforced by a well-judged interactive interlude at the end.  For all its historical interest, perhaps that’s the real gift I’ve taken from this tour; whatever our own political leanings, we can surely sign up to the principle of “deeds, not words”.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Brighton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.