Woman On Fire
Certain Curtain Theatre
TMC Waterside Theatre, Manchester
In the late 19th century, the neighbours of Edith Rigby (sole performer Claire Moore) criticise her for fraternising below her social station. Typical of her sharp wit, Rigby confirms she is infamous—in Preston. Although the prosperous wife of a doctor, she tries to improve the working conditions and educational opportunities for working class women. But the continuing refusal to grant the vote to woman pushes the once-pacifist to actions that nowadays might be considered terrorism.
Perhaps unintentionally, John Woudberg’s script for Woman On Fire exploits the current mania for cinematic superheroes. Like a superhero, Edith Rigby leads a double life challenging the forces of oppression. She is a mild-mannered homemaker and social reformer who becomes an aggressive militant. In her political activism, and even her home life, Rigby adopts disguises and there is even a moment equivalent to Bruce Wayne encountering the bat as Rigby emerges from a brutal encounter with the police transformed into a Woman On Fire.
Claire Moore’s powerful performance reflects the enigmatic nature of Edith Rigby. As the narrator of the play, she has a brisk, no-nonsense manner but when taking on the role of public speaker she is hesitant. Rigby’s growing confidence (and anger) comes across in her willingness to adopt more violent actions.
As well as being a character study, the play seeks to raise awareness of the suffragette movement. The audience is treated as if attending one of their rallies—addressed direct and urged to join the cause. The level of research is impressive yet the play does not bog down in detail, concentrating on the horrific treatment of the suffragettes and their growing rage at political indifference.
In a novel approach, Rigby’s husband is shown in a sympathetic light—supporting her actions and objecting only when they have a detrimental impact on her health. It is a shame the impact of Rigby’s activism on her family is not explored further as much of the factual material in the play is already familiar from other sources.
Although audiences are likely to already be aware of the history of the suffragette movement, a strong performance from Clare Moore and the filtering of detail through the fascinating personality of Edith Rigby ensures Woman On Fire retains attention throughout.
Reviewer: David Cunningham