Review: One Hand Tied Behind Us, Old Vic

A stirring and compelling evening of monologues exploring women’s rights – Maxine Peake curates One Hand Tied Behind Us at the Old Vic Theatre in London

“No cause can be won between dinner and tea, and most of us who were married had to work with one hand tied behind us”

That quote comes from English suffragette Hannah Mitchell, from The Hard Way Up: The Autobiography of a Suffragette, and provided the titular inspiration for One Hand Tied Behind Us, an evening of monologues at the Old Vic curated by Maxine Peake and conceived by Matthew Warchus. 

Using the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act as a springboard – and acknowledging that while it granted the first women in Britain the right to vote, many more remained disenfranchised – five writers were commissioned to respond to the anniversary, to take stock of the journey so far, where we are now, how much further there still is to go.

Stretching across class, sexuality, race lines and tackling the justice system, societal stereotypes, familial pressures and much more besides, it proved a thrilling evening of impassioned insight and empathy. Kit de Waal’s Imagine That, performed by Flo Wilson, was a standout, probing into the grace under immense pressure that can come from living on a blacklisted council estate, reiterating the importance of community action.

The tireless Sheila Atim gave great life to Bola Agbaje’s We Raise Girls!, exploring how gender stereotypes get reinforced from birth and how perniciously they can affect even the most tight-knit of families. And Peake’s own Contactless was full of her customary bluff humour and keen sense of social justice as Siobhan McSweeney’s ex-con exposed the lingering impact of a custodial sentence. 

Celia Imrie’s reading of Jeanette Winterson’s Mother’s Little Helper 1963 offered a modicum of darkly comic relief while underscoring the appalling prejudices women have faced throughout the ‘progress’ of the twentieth century. And mixing it up a little, music from folk group The Unthanks expanded the realm of the storytelling. A stirring and enlightening evening.

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