Rhondda Rips it Up! is an opera cabaret commissioned and produced by Welsh National Opera and based on the life of Lady Rhondda, Margaret Haig Thomas.
Famous soprano Lesley Garrett is the emcee, connecting and narrating the action and playing several male characters including Margaret’s father and her husband. Of course her voice is wonderful and her charisma lends itself well to some very funny scenes including a hunting spree and as the entertainer on board the Lusitania singing the innuendo-laden song ‘My Girl’s Pussy’.
Mezzo Madeleine Shaw is Margaret, whose range spans into some much-needed contralto at times when dueting with Anitra Blaxhall (Helen) and others, and she has a light and appealing touch while acting in serious and lighter scenes alike. As demonstrated by the loud applause and cheers, the audience absolutely loved her.
Both lead women were superbly supported by a cast of characterful friends: Sybil (Rosie Hay), Lottie (Catherine Wood), Prid (Paula Greenwood) and Edith (Meriel Andrew). Monika Sawa and Kate Woolveridge were excellent as the chauvinist Chancellor Birkenhead and Prime Minister Asquith whose provoking dialogue was as funny as it was infuriating.
Special mention must go to the human blackcurrant bush and post box, wonderful pieces of physical comic acting which need to be seen to be believed.
Welsh National Opera are extremely good with their staging with Lara Booth making every part of the stage design work. Side panels with openings are used to clever effect with politicians Asquith, Lord Birkenhead and David Lloyd-George appearing from on high and some creative use of the lower apertures in the aforementioned hunting scene.
Wheeled wooden tables, some chairs and different textiles are used in so many inventive ways to create so many different environments. A highlight was a wonderful Rolls Royce conjured up from little more than parasols and headlamps. Congratulations to the props departments for creating such mouth-watering looking delicacies for a touching and tickling scene where the suffragettes are torn between solidarity with their hunger-striking sisters, and wanting to tuck into this delicious fare.
The costumes were true to the period and no small detail is overlooked. The musicians (who are excellent) wear skirts in suffragette colours of purple and green with their hair pinned up very simply. The suffragettes who like Lady Rhondda are rather well-off, have their hair up in much fancier styles.
The chorus were excellent, not only singing well but acting fantastically. For this reason I enjoyed the first half more as I particularly enjoyed these ensemble scenes. The second focused more on Lady Rhondda, taking in her survival of the sinking of the Lusitania, leaving her husband for Helen and setting up respected publication Time and Tide fairly swiftly. If these events weren’t true you would almost say they were far-fetched!
I was intrigued to see the production because both women’s contributions and Welsh history can all too often be missing from our history lessons and our culture. Margaret’s history is an inspirational and fascinating one (more of which can be read in the programme), but overall the production is a musical celebration of the suffrage movement. Although it deals with serious themes it is light-hearted and at times incredibly funny without ever trivialising these themes – a clever achievement in my opinion.
I personally didn’t feel the community choir added much to the production but it’s obvious from the immense number of audience members who joined them in a pre-show singalong that my opinion is in the minority on that score. It’s certainly a very long time since I’ve seen Theatr Clwyd quite so full – a testament to the WNO’s popularity.
Rhondda Rips it Up! is a refreshing, original and joyous production offering audiences a thoroughly enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Rhondda Rips it Up! has been on tour since October – the final date is November 20 at the Theatre Royal Winchester.
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