The suffragettes must have been amongst the bravest people in the world at the time. We’ve all seen that heart-stopping footage of Emily Davison being trampled to death by the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby. There were no winners that day; what is less well known is that jockey Herbert Jones lived the rest of his life haunted by that event – until he took his own life in 1951. But, like with most bad laws, a combination of protest, civil disobedience and strong people being prepared to be counted, eventually the law was changed so that women over the age of 30 started to get the vote in 1918; and that was reduced to the age of 21 in 1928, a few weeks after the death of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
Exposing Inequality focuses on an historical character that I’d never heard of before – Alice Hawkins. She, like Unseen Truths’ Jessica Harding, lived in Leicester, working in a shoe factory at the age of thirteen, quickly realising how much less she was being paid than the men who were doing precisely the same work. Pay inequality, extraordinarily, continues to this day – and this provides the main material for the play. But we also flashback to Alice Hawkins’ life; her early political involvement, her marriage to Alfred, her imprisonment for marching for equality, and her death in 1946 at the age of 83, which, considering how hard her life must have been, was some achievement in itself.
I remember the late Beryl Reid, when asked how she created her characters, used to say that she always started with their feet. If she knew how they’re feet felt – big, small, healthy, grotty, comfy shoes, tight-fitting shoes, etc – then she could work her way up to the rest of their bodies and their minds. Jessica Harding has also concentrated on the feet, lining up a series of shoes and boots along the front of the stage, which she dons for the different characters in her play. Sometimes she wears them ordinarily, as we all do, whether it be work shoes or fashion shoes; and sometimes she kneels down and just puts her hands in them and stomps them around like a child at play. Whilst initially funny, it gets a bit cumbersome as the scene continues.
And that was largely the problem I had with the whole play and performance – it tended to be cumbersome and heavy. Some of the scenes were simply too long, for example the fascinating and notable recent case of BBC journalist Carrie Gracie, who resigned from the corporation on the grounds of pay discrimination. Unfortunately, Ms Harding read out what I guess was the entirety of Ms Gracie’s resignation letter – and it was long! For the sake of factual completeness, we lost dramatic interest. Being bombarded with PowerPoint presentations full of graphs, facts and figures makes for a dull day at the office, let alone when you’re watching a theatrical experience. It was a shame, because Ms Harding is obviously a very bright spark with a strong stage presence and very clear and expressive voice; and her opening address filled me with confidence for a lively, quirky look at the struggle for equality for women. But sadly, that didn’t follow through and there were times when it was a little boring, I’m afraid. Some good ideas there but it lacked that special oomph.