Lesley Garrett in evening dress as Emcee with Madeleine Shaw as Lady Rhondda with the suffragettes as the first women vote. Pictures, continuing the feminist theme, by Jane Hobson

Rhondda Rips it Up!

Welsh National Opera



Margaret Haig Mackworth, the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, was a militant suffragette, a bomber who was jailed and went on hunger strike, married, divorced, had relationships with women – oh and she also survived the sinking of the Lusitania, yet hardly anyone had heard of her.

Not any more though after this romp of a show from WNO. It is billed as a cabaret opera but it owes a lot more to music hall than the likes of Mozart.

It’s fast, funny, raucous, risque and . . . very feminine – not demure or ladylike mind, feminine as in everyone from cast and orchestra to writers and director are women.

They play the women, and the men, be it Lloyd George, Asquith, Churchill, Margaret’s father, the 1st viscount, her husband, and her husband Sir Humphrey Mackworth, and assorted MPs, lords and police.

A celebration of the centenary of women being given the vote. It must be difficult for modern youngsters to realise women were denied a vote until 1918 – and even then it was limited to property owners who were 30 or older. It also allowed women to stand for parliament for the first time.

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 is the end of the opera but it was not the end for Margaret who battled on. It was to be another 10 years before women received voting equality with men.

Lesley Garrett as Emcee, this time leading the entertainment on the Luisitania

As a viscount Margaret, given special permission to inherit the title when her sonless father died, was also fighting to take her seat in the Lords.

It was not until 1958 that life peers were finally allowed to sit in the Lords. Viscount Rhondda lived to see the act passed but died before the first woman took her seat.

It was 1963 before hereditary women peers were allowed to take their seats.

Acting as the master of ceremonies, Emcee, is soprano Lesley Garrett, obviously having great fun in her role much in the style of Worcester’s music hall star Vesta Tilly, of Burlington Bertie fame, an performer renowned for appearing dressed as a man.

Her songs include Harry Roy’s My Girl’s Pussy which is packed with double entendres that would give any self-respecting maiden aunt a rapid attack of the vapours –the twinkle in Garrett’s eye as she sings it is a delight.  

She also had some lovely touches in the background – her polishing of her blunderbuss as Margaret’s husband, the hunting shooting and fishing Sir Humphrey Mackworth is a comedy gem.

Margaret herself is played by mezzo-soprano Medeleine Shaw, and she carries the role beautifully whether she is singing a rousing anthem or a sad torch song with lesbian lover Helen Archdale, sug by Anitra Blaxhall.

Her viscount is a determined woman who ran the Newport branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). And to get herself jailed, so she could go on hunger strike – peers in jail, especially starving ones, attracting plenty of publicity – she blew up a postbox in Newport.

There is drama when she is a passenger on the ill fated Lusitania. She survived, but the loss of 1,200 souls including 159 children was to affect her the rest of her life. The act of 1918 she saw as a start and she carried on the fight for the rest of her life, starting and editing the influential feminist literary magazine, Time and Tide.

There is tremendous support from the 18 strong chorus who play every other part from police to politicians while the 10 strong band under musical director Nicola Rose, switch from style to style with effortless aplomb from G&S to swing.

While filling the aisles come the WNO community chorus to add to the womanhood of the event.

A musical about one of the stalwarts of the suffragette movement could be a bit on the worthy side but Elena Langer’s music and Emma Jenkins libretto, with songs incorporating slogans and pamphlets of the time, plus the excellent cast, make this a night of entertainment and fun, leaving you educated without even knowing it. A splendid evening’s entertainment. On tour to 20-11-18

Roger Clarke


Rhondda will be ripping it up again at the Forum at Malvern Theatres on Tuesday, 26 June.

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