On a fine sunny evening towards the end of June I met up with some old Bedfordians and other friends at the pub next to the Hackney Empire before attending ‘Rhondda rips it up’ by the Welsh National Opera. We entered the old traditional Music Hall theatre to the rousing sound of ‘The March of the Women’ sung by the audience and led by members of the chorus. We just had time to find our seats and join in with the singing before the all-women performance began.
From the start it promised to live up to its description of ‘Rip Roaring’ with Lesley Garrett as the wonderful male impersonator, MC, leading us through the incredible life of Margaret Haig Thomson, the Viscount Rhondda, played superbly by Madeleine Shaw, urging us to, ‘Cast off your Corset’. The set and props, designed by Lara Booth, expertly created the atmosphere and supported the story-telling. The story began in 2011 with the unveiling of Margaret’s commemorative portrait in the House of Lords, where she was never allowed to take up her seat, and then went back in time to 1903 when she was inspired by Emmeline Pankhurst to start the Newport branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union.
Particularly memorable was the delightfully funny scene, ‘A Fondant Fancy isn’t really Food’, which has Margaret and her friends enjoying a high tea but feeling a bit guilty because they have friends in prison on hunger strike. We were treated to fun and sadness, illustrating Margaret’s life and her indomitable spirit through wonderful music, ranging from beautiful opera to raucous music hall. A militant Suffragette sent to prison for setting fire to a post box, she survived the sinking of the Lusitania and was eventually instrumental in obtaining the vote for women of property over 30 in 1918. She founded the influential weekly ‘Time and Tide’ in 1920 and lived the last years of her life with her lover, Theodora Bosanquet.
Following the performance was a particularly enjoyable and informative Q and A session, led by Professor Angela John, with Elena Langer, composer, and Emma Jenkins, librettist. They spoke about the enormous privilege and benefits of working collaboratively within an all-women environment. Angela John is the author of ‘Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda’, which I have been inspired to read, and provided background information for the production.
Altogether a wonderfully optimistic and up-lifting evening with the nostalgia of being surrounded by good company and the Bedford colours of purple, silver and green.
Bedford alumna, Physics, 1970-73