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What do a care worker, spy and suffragette have in common?

This year has got to be one of the worst times to be a woman, particularly a working class woman. So it is great to see a play that examines what it means to be a woman over the last 100 years. This is not the usual narrow issue-based narrative, it takes on some of the wider important issues that we grapple with as women, including taking political action and its consequences.

The play’s title, Angel in the House, refers to a poem written by Victorian Coventry Patmore which promoted the image of a passive and submissive woman as the ideal wife:

“Man must be pleased; but him to please Is woman’s pleasure…”.

In 1931 Virginia Woolf attacked this ideal, responding that:

“Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer”.

Alex Keelan’s play follows in Woolf’s footsteps to show the strength and commitment of three women who follow their own actions and principles, even if it means challenging the stereotypical images of women in the 20th century.

Staged in a chilly, bare cellar at Hope Theatre – so we get to feel what sitting in a dank cell might be like – we join three women, separated by history but all experiencing imprisonment. They tell their stories in interwoven monologues whose directness is mesmerising.

Rose is a care worker who is spurred into political action by her 97 year old client Pearl, and her friend Sheila. I loved her quip about lefty men as posh blokes. The actor, Charlie Young, shows us the vulnerability of a young woman who has lost her mother at an early age and spent much of her life caring for other people and not challenging this role. In her relationship with Pearl she meets a formidable woman who believes that women should not just accept the life laid down for them, but should seize life and live it to the limit.

Unlike Rose the other two women, Annie and Angela, have made a conscious decision to become involved in politics. Annie, played by Morag Peacock, is a suffragette and I love the way she rages about being denied the vote because she is a woman and denied a decent life because she is working class. Through her we get a potted history of the lives of working class women in the early 20th century. I am not sure that all the audience understood all her references to events, and I feel the actor should have had a northern accent.

The third woman Angela is a British special agent in France. Although now in prison she refuses to be bowed by torture and the sexist remarks made by her guards. Victoria Tunnah gives a chilling performance as Angela with the occasional smart remark, my favourite being – lipstick is more deadly than a gun!

Running through the play are big themes about women’s lives. Not just ones about political commitment, but ideas about education, the choices we make as women and where we end up. Alex Keelan has written an insightful rollercoaster of a play. Maybe there are too many ideas to think about at times and occasionally I felt assailed by all the information being thrown at me. But in 2017 we need plays that will make us think, and maybe even get involved in political activity.

Angel of the House is a play full of hope and inspiration about women both in the past and today. I hope it can spread that positive message and inspire another generation of women to believe that they too can change society.

 

Bernadette Hyland writer and political activist. Author of ‘Northern ReSisters: Conversations with Radical Women’ which documents the rich radical tradition of women activists in the north west. Blogs at lipsticksocialist.wordpress.com

Featured Image via Wonder Woman Festival 2017 – Angel of the House

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