May - A Suffragettes Story Review
Review by Adele Matterface
‘We may not win today, or tomorrow, but someday – we will win’
‘May’ is a play which showcases an emotional tale of activism, disability and sexuality. Performed solely by actor Phoebe Kemp, it premiered to a full audience at the Trowbridge Town Hall. The complete script includes a total of ten characters, seven of which Kemp played live onstage. This was a challenge she met confidently and gracefully and the show was considered an all-around success by its audience.
The play opens with episodes from May’s home life such as her family sat around the dinner table and a trip they all take to the seaside. Although May is clearly loved by the people around her, she is constantly patronised. She is told when to go to bed by her mother and affectionately told by other members of the Woman’s Social and Political Union that her becoming involved with anyone romantically is something which they will never have to worry about. When a series of events outside of her control leaves her devastated, May throws herself into her activism. When things seem at their most desperate, she comes up with a daring plan to sacrifice her safety in the determined hope of gaining sympathy for the Suffragist cause.
The performance was directed by Hannah Treadway and both she and Kemp are wheelchair users themselves. After the show, they discussed the fact that disabled historical figures are frequently forgotten. They based ‘May’ on the life of real-life suffragette Rosa ‘May’ Billinghurst, an active member and organiser of the WSPU who was partially paralysed by polio as a child. Known as the ‘Splendid cripple’, Billinghurst left behind many letters and other communication between herself and her family and with those involved in the fight for women’s rights. Many lines of dialogue featured within ‘May’ were taken directly from this correspondence. Kemp said she chose Billinghurst’s life to bring to the stage because she loved ‘her attitude’.
An impressive aspect of the play was that ‘May’ it was performed with very few props. Notably, Kemp performed the entire piece either on crutches or in a mechanism she refers to as ‘Creaky Franky’. ‘Creaky Franky’ is a heavyweight, original replica of a hand-steered tricycle which must have been exhausting to operate. Amazingly, this didn’t impede Kemp’s performance at all and if anything added to the sincerity of it. With few props and a single actor performing the show, there were no distractions from the lessons which Billinghurst’s history has to teach us as an audience. The end result was a play which is moving, educational and unique.
The show is particularly relevant considering the centenary of the first females obtaining the right to vote in England. With issues surrounding women’s rights being debated daily in the media, it is important to reflect on how far we’ve come since 1918 and how far is left to go before all people are treated with respect and equality. Kemp and Treadway are continuing to tour their performance with dates booked in Devizes, Malmsbury and Bath. They are also in the process of planning retour in Autumn. If you would like to attend the show for yourself, please visit maytheplay.co.uk.