London Pavilion, Piccadilly Circus, London – 25 March 2018
This year marks 100 years since the first women were granted the right to vote, and there are many things going on to help celebrate this historic moment. The latest of which is Suffragette City, an immersive experience that re-creates the events in Lillian Ball’s life; she was a mother, dressmaker and Suffragette from Tooting, who took part in the infamous West End window smashing campaign in 1912. It has been created by the National Trust and National Archives and all takes place on location in Piccadilly.
It isn’t the most obvious place to find, as there are no signs outside – so make sure you go inside the Money Exchange Money Gram (just around from Ripley’s and the Cinnabon Bakery) and down the stairs in front of you, where you’ll find a green door. And you’ve found the headquarters of the WSPU! The Women’s Social and Political Union was the militant arm of the suffrage campaign, led by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia (until she was expelled), championing the maxim “deeds not words”. Once you’re in, you’re given a brief induction and decide on a prison alias; should you ever get arrested, this is the name you will have to stick to when you’re at your most scared.
The whole experience lasts around an hour, depending on what’s left to do and how you’re treated. There are always little tasks that your fellow Suffragettes will need help with, such as painting stones in the recognisable colours (with or without key slogans) ready for more window smashing, and making rosettes to present to those who have been incarcerated. You’ll also learn the WSPU’s official anthem, ‘The March of the Women’, and sing it on a march in the surrounding area – or even get sent out on a mission which could land you in prison…
You have to be prepared to get stuck in, and not worry about embarrassing yourself. There’s a good chance that you’ll end up separated from other members of your party (if you go in a group), so be ready for that – this also means that you’re not really at a disadvantage if you go alone. A decent amount of time is spent on the different tasks and missions, so if you’re not the most gifted at crafts (like me) you don’t have to struggle on with that for too long until you get a change of scenery.
Whether you know a lot or very little about the WSPU’s campaign it doesn’t matter, as the company is very well informed and drip feeds you information as you go along – so not only do you get to immerse yourself in this world for a brief time, but you also increase your knowledge at the same time. Be sure to pick up a copy of Lillian Ball’s testimony before you leave, as it is a horrifying but enlightening read; there is also a map of the West End that shows exactly which areas were targeted for window smashing campaigns.
The entire company is admirably committed to their roles, be they Suffragettes (Ariane Barnes, Natasha Langridge & Eleonora Russo), Interrogating Officers (Edward Andrews, Ralph Bogard & Padraig Lynch) or the Arresting Officer (Canavan Connolly). Understandably the new experiences do start out as a bit of a giggle, as you know it is simply a re-creation, but once you’ve been forced to stand facing the wall in a darkened room whilst officers interrogate you and belittle your beliefs you definitely do get a flavour of what these courageous women must have gone through. It’s also quite inspiring to walk out of the London Pavilion with your comrades, holding banners and singing (or loudly shouting the familiar “VOTES FOR WOMEN!”) – it’s moments of unison like that which must have kept them going, throughout the imprisonments, force-feeding and misunderstanding from their families and neighbourhoods.
It’s definitely an experience to cherish and think over, as a reminder of how lucky we are to not have to fight for these basic rights. Terrifically performed, and something I thoroughly recommend you try for yourselves.