Review: Votes for Women/The Magnificent Andrea, Radio 3/4

“No decent woman will be able to say suffrage without blushing for another generation”

Part of a series of radio dramas looking at contemporary responses to the increasing emancipation of women at the turn of the twentieth century, Votes for Women is a 1907 suffragette play by Elizabeth Robins, one of the most forthright actresses of the time who allegedly pulled a gun on George Bernard Shaw when he made a pass at her. Her play looks at women who were equally bold at a time when the movement for women’s suffrage was beginning to stagnate, paralysed by the filibustering efforts of the men in Parliament. Where some were content to continue the same path and attempt to win them over, others were adamant that direct action was the only course of action and Robins neatly explores this schism in the movement.

In Marion Nancarrow’s production, Zoë Tapper plays Vida Levering, one of the activists determined to take things further whose zeal sweeps up those around her, including the youthful heiress Jean Dunbarton, voiced by the delicately effervescent Charity Wakefield, who is newly engaged to Sam West’s Tory MP Geoffrey Stoner, who in turn has his own connection to Vida. This tangled relationship provides the melodramatic meat for the final third of the play and if not quite brilliant, it is certainly engaging. Robins is much more successful at the dramatisation of the crusading spirit and enthusiasm of the time.

The marvellous Sylvestra Le Touzel plays Lady John, one of the more seasoned campaigners and her conversations with Tapper’s Levering are excellently done, positing both sides of the debate but purely through their conversation rather than heavy-handed posturing. And where there is soapboxing, it is entirely appropriate as at the rally that forms the middle of the play which is vivid and compelling and extraordinary and shocking. Somehow the debate still seems so relevant, many of its issues still not satisfactorily resolved in our modern society (such as, rather amusingly, the havering of the Liberal party) yet Robins is always canny enough to force us to take our own positions, and ask ourselves the question of how far we would go to fight for them.

Nigel Planer’s debut radio play The Magnificent Andrea was a less successful enterprise for me. Centred on the two main men in recently deceased Andrea’s life, her former husband the embittered and sozzled Barry and her current partner, Planer’s naturopath Nigel, it’s a simply drawn bittersweet comedy but one which made little real impact. Roger Allam oozes his customary quality as Barry, but just doesn’t have the depth of character with which an actor like him ought to have to play with. And as this odd couple comes to terms with their mutual loss and realise the antipathy between them isn’t so strong, it melts into a conclusion too syrupy to take at all seriously.   

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