A Century of Women
Devised and directed by Alison Mead
Leicester Square Theatre
In two hours six actresses present cameos of twenty women spanning the last hundred years using material drawn from their own speeches, writings and performances. It is a familiar format but here it is done very well and it gains enormously from the fact that the very different types of women presented range from the famous to the notorious, though people may not agree on which is which and they include some who will not be familiar to everyone in the audience.
Although most of these women are identified with a projected photograph and a caption giving their name and often the date of the moment that is being captured there is no explanatory wrapping; what information you get is contained in what they say which makes the whole thing very direct in its impact,
The six actresses do not attempt to impersonate the women they portray but rather to catch the spirit of their personalities, whether the upper class certainties of Georgia Miles as suffragette leader Mrs Pankhurst (with a speech delivered in the United States), the self-assured delivery of Debbie Yearsley's Margaret Roberts, preaching personal responsibility just after her failure to be elected an MP, or the straightforward simplicity with which Cleo Sylvestre presents Rosa Parks, the black woman whose refusal to give up her seat on a bus launched the civil rights movement . Renée Montemayor is Lady Astor making her maiden speech in the House of Commons, the first woman in Parliament, and also a moving Aung Sang Suu Kyi while Katy Federman is Christine Keeler, at the centre of a political scandal.
Sylvestre also gives us gentle but forceful Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be a Nobel Prize winner, Miles is Edith Cavell and photographer Dorothea Lange who focused her camera on the Depression's down-and-outs and the victims of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl; she is also Marie Stopes and Federman is Germaine Greer and Marie Curie, but there are others who don't so obviously fit the political and women's movement pattern, until you hear what they actually have to say. Syvestre is a relaxed but tactful Josephine Baker, being interviewed on a return to the United States, Miles is Vivienne Westwood and Montemayor Yoko Ono and Audrey Hepburn, Yearsley both Marilyn Monroe .and Vera Lynn. Less expectedly perhaps are Federman's JK Rowling and sailor Ellen MacArthur.
With no less than ten musical numbers it is amazing that so much can be packed into just two hours, including an interval, but director Alison Mead has made if flow with ease, other members of the cast becoming nurses, Harvard academics, suffragettes or even male MPs - Sylvestre making a mute but very funny Winston Churchill.
It is simply staged but sumptuously dressed by Andrea Gambell and it makes a very entertaining show, the cast's performances see to that, without detracting from its serious content. With both together it makes a real celebration of some great women of the past hundred years.
"A Century of Women" runs at the Leicester Square Theatre until 9th September 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton