It's a sunny summer evening and the sisters are out in force. At dusk there's a sense of expectation in Exeter's Rougemont Gardens enhanced by rugs and hampers. The women (plus a few of the others – about a 10:1 ratio) are waiting – for an infusion of Oxygen.
Natalie McGrath's Oxygen celebrates the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of 1913, with a focus on the south west route following some Cornish women from Lands End to London. This is Dreadnought South West Association's first project – and it is a timely cracker.
Expect – an ensemble of five talented actors; a stark, skeletal eye catcher of a set; some haunting original music. Anticipate – being moved, sometimes mesmerised, occasionally confused. Wait for – stray images and fragments of tunes to re-emerge in mental replays long after the show.
The play aims to put women's stories and experiences out there. The political – personal spectrum is explored with some sensitivity. The activist strands – 'Votes for Women.' 'Fear nothing, dread nought, speak out.' 'Make a pilgrimage to London.' – represent a big series of leaps for some of the Cornwall contingent. Once on their way, they are empowered.
Unlike the pilgrimage route, the play's narrative is far from linear. There is a lot of character hopping and multiple location shifts. This episodic approach is a tad puzzling despite costume and scenery clues. The beautiful bare bones set – wooden/bamboo tripods and hessian covered shapes – are frequently recast into new sculpts, mostly effectively. A couple of the characters embrace breeches but the general look is conventional female attire – light long sleeved tops, dark flowing skirts, hats – all topped with stripy sashes and the odd rosette. The prison gear looks spookily authentic. This show is visually strong and would be even more striking played inside. And yet, Oxygen has a reflective, dreamy quality and a slightly out of focus feel.
Some of the big names of the Suffragette movement make brief appearances – Emmeline Pankhurst, Millicent Fawcett, Emily Davison – but for the most part it's the unknowns who are brought to life. The audience laugh and cry with them and some look ready to peel out of their corsets and march.
Oxygen is a long show and a bit wordy but it's quite special – so pack the hamper and catch it if you can.