A riotous romp through the life of pivotal Suffragette Lady Rhondda Margaret Haig Thomas (played by Madeleine Shaw) is what was promised by Welsh National Opera, and indeed it was what was delivered too in their latest musical-opera Rhondda Rips it Up.
The buzz in Pontio’s packed Theatr Bryn Terfel was enchanting as the all-female cast and orchestra made their way onto the stage. The catchy songs started the show off with a joyful and spirited tone which remained throughout. It didn’t take long for me to be drawn into the excitement of seeing which roles the diverse and talented female cast would be playing in the next scene and indeed which item of set would be revealed as a surprise prop. It was clear from the offset that this was a production which had undergone intense research, planning and rehearsal.
Like many in the audience I didn’t have much prior knowledge of the life of the main character Lady Rhondda, Margaret Haig Thomas. It was sure a life packed with campaigning, events and tragedies, all depicted within the musical. It was clear why her tale inspired this opera-musical, with her determined and unapologetic character surely a fitting inspiration for this generation too.
The opera side of the performance did prove challenging at times for a novice like myself. Where I could follow individual singers, I often got lost in trying to follow the plot when the all-female chorus hit the high notes. Combining this with a story which jumped covered many events and many years I did feel that I left the theatre with a few holes in the plot still to fill in.
Nevertheless, the delightful humour and community spirit did compensate and the overall message of celebrating the work and success of the Suffragettes was clear. The fourth wall was broken frequently and flags given to audience members before the show as the community choir sang in the Foyer soon had me feeling more like a proud supporter than a mere audience member.
What drove this story more than anything was the layers of humour it offered. Cheeky sexual innuendos made their way into a fair bit of songs and traditional slapstick humour felt in keeping with the historical era. Much of the humour simply came from seeing how different mind-sets and attitudes towards women were back then in comparison to today. Amongst all the laughter came the chance to breathe a sigh of relief as we were reminded indeed how far we’ve come in terms of women’s rights.
A pivotal directorial decision which stuck in my mind as I left the theatre was the refreshing choice to make no fuss or bother of the main character’s decision to leave her husband in favour of another woman. As both women reached for their first embrace it was impossible to ignore the odd tutting and gasp from the audience. For me, this plotline was what gave this production strength as it reminded us that amongst the celebration of how far we’ve progressed there’s always more to be done.
For any struggles this generation may face this joyful opera sure is a reminder of the power in fighting your cause.
Main image: Lesley Garrett
Images : Jane Hobson