Oxygen Review – The Rondo Theatre, Bath

On 13 July 2013
Review by Sue Gordon

Oxygen, a new play, by Natalie McGrath, tells the story of a group of women who walked from Land’s End to Hyde Park in the Summer of 1913 as part of  the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage. History tells us that thousands of women up and down Britain joined the march to London in protest against gender inequalities, work conditions and to demand votes for women.

In contrast to the militancy of Emmeline Pankhurst’s campaign, exemplified by Emily Davison’s death at Epsom the same month as the Suffrage Pilgimage, the marchers wanted to emphasise that the campaign for equal rights could be law-abiding and peaceful.

Natalie McGrath’s well-structured play highlights the divisions within the suffrage movement through its focus on two sisters who take up opposing positions with regard to the issue of militancy. To that extent, their relationship mirrors that of Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst, who held strongly conflicting views as to the best way to gain the franchise.

The production is both inventive and resourceful with just a few props used to good effect to create a sense of the time. Moreover the ensemble combine well to portray both the determination but also the emotional intensity and sense of common purpose that drove these women on in their search for justice.

The music is beautifully evocative both of the aspirations of the women but also of their sense of frustration in the face of difficulties and sheer exhaustion.

Oxygen tours until 20 July with the final performance at The Orange Tree. Richmond. It is a powerful piece of theatre that confirms Natalie McGrath’s genuine talent as a theatre maker.

Link: http://www.britishtheatreguide.info/reviews/oxygen-the-rondo-theat-9027


Posted in Reviews of Oxygen

Jane Duffus from THE F WORD

You could say that 2013 has been a good year for emancipation of women. Colliding with the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison's death at the Epsom Derby in 1913, we've enjoyed a raft of new suffrage books this year, Clare Balding's documentary about Davison and Jessica Hynes' sit-com Up The Women. Alongside this resurgence in interest about our feminist foremothers comes Oxygen: a new play by Natalie McGrath. This celebrates another suffrage centenary – that of the pilgrimage of women who marched for six weeks from Land's End to Hyde Park for the largest ever suffrage rally.

Produced by the Dreadnought South West Association, Oxygen is one of a series of projects to champion women's voices and stories over the years. Since the tour began on 19 June, Oxygen has been traveling across the South West, following the route taken by those determined women 100 years ago. They have been stopping off at town halls, arts centres and community halls along the way to spread the message of women's history to as many people as possible.

What is refreshing about Oxygen is that it focuses less on the militant suffragettes and more on the peaceful suffragists, as well as its illustration of the struggles between the two as they try to work alongside one another. In Oxygen, this is illustrated by two sisters, each of whom side with different camps, although ultimately they march shoulder to shoulder with the same goal. It is also importantly illustrated by having peaceful leader Millicent Fawcett speak at the final rally in Hyde Park, rather than militant leader Emmeline Pankhurst.

While women have the right to vote, we still have child poverty, human trafficking and sweated labour Oxygen covers a lot of issues that were relevant at the time with perfect accuracy, making clear that women's emancipation involved a great deal more than simply enabling women to have the right to vote once every five years. It was also to do with ending child poverty, ending the white slave trade and ending sweated labour. It was also to do with shedding constraining clothing like corsets ("I am distorted no longer! Liberty!" cries one character), and much more besides.

Music plays an important part in Oxygen, just as it did in the whole suffrage campaign. In fact, the production showcases four brand new songs with lyrics written by Natalie McGrath and music by Clare Ingleheart. These were all uplifting, touching and beautiful – I very much hope that they will be available to buy from Dreadnought South West before long.

There is a cast of five (Rebecca Hulbert, Michelle Ridings, Rachel Rose Reid, Stevie Thompson and Carolyn Tomkinson), who flit between characters and classes. All must be applauded for their talent and performance – as well as for holding up unfailingly in full period costume during a sweltering heatwave!

You could say that 2013 has been a good year for emancipation of women. But you could also say that while women have the right to vote, we still have child poverty, human trafficking and sweated labour. Oxygen is an uplifting and touching reminder of what we have achieved so far and of how far we still have to go.



Posted in Reviews of Oxygen

Oxygen Review – Trinity Centre

Reviewed by Rosemary Wagg

Summer 2013 marks the centenary of Emily Wilding Davison’s death after falling under the King’s horse at Epsom Derby. Unsurprisingly for an historical figure with a secure place on the school curriculum, this anniversary has sparked renewed interest in the suffragette who is usually just one step behind the Pankhursts on the name-check list.

Surprisingly, for a figure we thought we knew everything about, 2013 has also drawn attention to some crucial evidence that disputes the typical martyrdom myth. We have learnt that Davidson had a return ticket from Epson in her coat pocket – OK, so a return is usually almost the same price as a single, but I still wouldn’t buy one if I was heading somewhere to die – and slowed-down camera footage of her drive forward onto the track suggests she was attempting to attach a Votes for Women sash to the horse, not sacrifice herself under it.

The true intentions of Davison we will, of course, never know, and I do think – given the pervasiveness of the idea of her as a suicide – that the recent publicising of challenging research and the newly questioning attitude towards her are both worthwhile. However, this continued borderline-obsession with the King’s horse and the suffragette always serves to ignore the many thousands of other women who supported women’s suffrage and, whilst not quite giving their lives for it, did devote considerable time and effort to campaigning for it.

Oxygen, a new play by Natalie McGrath, which is currently touring the South of England, significantly expands this usually narrow focus and, for this reason and many others, it is a very welcome addition to both popular scholarship on the movement and the current schedule of a lot of small theatres.

McGrath’s play is about a group of Cornish women who left the South West to join a march of thousands, known as ‘the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage’, across the South of England to Hyde Park. Perhaps because the tour of the play follows the same route itself and is augmented with ‘waymarker events’ that will be ‘responding to the centenary of the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage and celebrating women’s voices and issues today’, the authenticity of the ensemble’s passion for women’s suffrage and feminism is palpably detected. The hot tears that eek out of eyes so obviously come from genuinely believing in each word of the script and feeling a connection with the characters and people of that era.

This authenticity of emotion was probably what made this show far transcend being a small-stage costume drama. In fact, it far transcended both large-stage costume dramas and TV costume dramas. I will compare it to the most recent televised version of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, despite perhaps not being qualified to do so, being as I only grumbled through one part of it before finding, in particular, the suffragette character, Valentine Wannop, an insufferably simpering show-off topped with anachronistic blonde highlights. Contrastingly, the actresses in Oxygen are – without reverting to sounding like a Dove advert – refreshingly diverse in looks and ages and perceptively cast in roles subtly tweaked into being historically realistic.

 It was, quite simply, a proper joy to watch and re-awakened in me a memory of the first time I went to vote – for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral elections – and felt an almost absurd amount of pride at having been able to do so. The small Primary School-aged version of me that I still carry around just under my ribs, and who once added Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst to her little list of ‘Cool Women’, kept grinning for the whole long day.

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Oxygen Review – Exeter Insider

For what cause would you give up six weeks of your life, leaving your home and family to walk 300 miles? Would you be willing to go to prison for this cause? To endure force-feeding twice-daily, suffering broken ribs, a broken nose and damaged lungs for the rest of your life? To die? These questions all came to the fore as I sat in the sun-bathed bowl of Rougemont Gardens watching Oxygen, a new play by Exeter-based Natalie McGrath that celebrates the courage and spirit of the women who fought and campaigned and sacrificed so much to make sure that I, as a woman in the 21st century, can vote.


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Oxygen Review – Remote Goat

Four stars
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.

Posted in Reviews of Oxygen

Oxygen Review – Western Morning News

It could be their costumes, the walking boots, long skirts, straw hats and suffragette-coloured ribbons they are wearing, but as soon as the cast of Oxygen take to the stage there is no doubting the fact that we are about to see something very special.

Written by Natalie McGrath and directed by Josie Sutcliffe, this is 90 minutes of non-stop, compelling theatre.

Created as part of the Dreadnought South West Association project, which works uses art and heritage to champion women's voices and stories, it was inspired by a walk taken 100 years ago from Land's End to London by members of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. That event, in turn, was prompted by Emmeline Pankhurst's hunger strike in Holloway prison and the death of Emily Davison at the Epsom Derby in 1913.

Following the fate of two sisters, one of whom opts to take a path of militancy and the other of peacefulness to achieve their aims, it uses live music, songs, some slick scene shifting and swift costume changes. Audiences see how their relationship changes along the way while being reminded of the struggles the suffragettes suffered in pursuit of their cause.

Wearing black arm bands, the minute's silence they observe in respect of Emily Davison is perhaps the most poignant of the play's many moving moments.

As well as wanting the vote, among their objectives they also want to end child poverty, to stop the white slave traffic and to end sweated labour. As we know, they eventually achieved their main aim but, sadly, a century later, the other problems they campaigned against are still with us.

A word for everyone involved with this admirable production, but particularly for the players, Rebecca Hulbert, Michelle Ridings, Rachel Rose Reid, Carolyn Tomkinson and Stevie Thompson, who are riveting.

The company continues its tour throughout Cornwall with a mix of indoor and outdoor episodes and full performances. A "must see" production for both women and men – especially those who don't bother to go out and vote.

Posted in Reviews of Oxygen

Oxygen Review – The Stage

Natalie McGrath’s beautiful and uplifting play celebrates a group of women who walked from Land’s End to Hyde Park in the Great Suffrage Pilgrimage of June 1913.

It was a call answered by women all over the country, who converged on London in their tens of thousands six weeks later to press for votes and an end to child poverty, sweated labour and white slavery. They wanted to show that the suffrage movement was law-abiding and utterly determined, but not dependent on the firebrand, high-profile suffragettes demonised by the media.

In a sequence of intense and conjoined episodes, the play focuses on two sisters and what happens to their relationship when one chooses militancy and the other peaceful protest.
With nothing more than a bicycle, banners, hats and sashes, the cast magically create an ‘everywhere’, with pavement scenes and public meetings the settings for intimate conversations and a painful dilemma.

The ensemble effectively conveys the characters’ emotional resilience with astonishing delicacy, tenderness and subtlety – an unsentimental testimony to the courage of women who braved weather, hostility and sickness for their belief.

Claire Ingleheart’s music perfectly captures the rapture and exhilaration of the dream as well as the poignancy of loss and exhaustion it demanded. Songs in which the women sing in harmony are especially moving, seeming to say, ‘We walk for the women who cannot’.

Indeed, it’s a sign of Dreadnought’s commitment to the play’s values that the company has organised a remembrance walk as part of a series of waymark events following the route of the pilgrimage and the play’s tour.

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Oxygen Review – Rougemont Gardens

article1-1A week ago today, just as the sun started shining on Devon I went to see Oxygen at the Rougemont Gardens in Exeter.  Not only was the weather perfect, but the location couldn't have been more historically ideal; the Rougemont Gardens were originally part of Exeter Castle's moat, and it was within the castle walls that the four ‘Devon witches’ were tried in the 1680s, before becoming the last women in England to be executed for witchcraft. As a final bonus, it was also Independence Day which, while predominantly an American day of remembrance, it struck me as being pretty appropriate, as what else were these women marching for, 100 years ago, if not independence?


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