The daughter of leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was gay – supposedly. In Ladyfriends, running at the Camden People’s Theatre, the alleged relationship between Christabel Pankhurst (played by Kat Johns-Burke) and fellow activist Annie Kenney (Lucy Mackay) is explored with both dizzying and dazzling theatrics which break the fourth wall. Heck, at one point, I was holding Annie’s hand as a front row audience member, set to marry the women’s rights campaigner. Ultimately, however, the central narrative of Ladyfriends is somewhat clouded by the pursuit of multiple mediums in which to tell a forgotten queer love story.
Continuing her chronicling of queer history after her glittering VAULT Festival production Butterfly, writer and director Clodagh Chapman opts to tell a plausible love story through moments of gig theatre, film and PowerPoint presentations (yes, really, and it’s utterly brilliant). Each of these have their moments: the pair riff off each other in the musical elements, with the odd smirk and over-the-top guitar strum; when on camera, Johns-Burke quivers her bottom lip and exaggerates her fluttering eyelids to a hilarious extent. With the return of Mackay and the similar purple hues lighting up the stage, it isn’t too dissimilar from Butterfly in its approach and subject matter. Chapman covers forgotten queer stories which experimental exuberance. The key difference from Butterfly, though, is that in jumping between mediums in one singular narrative, it’s hard to follow.
The couple pose for the camera in the corner of the stage (manned by Hannah Bristow), yet adopt a contrasting dynamic when they’re off. They’re the same characters irrespective of whether the camera is rolling or not, of course, but that then begs the question: what’s the difference? Is the filmed version a comment on the modern day lens we adopt to the story of Pankhurst and Kenney? Not really, seeing as they share an unwavering romance for the camera, and many of us will know nothing about these two historic figures and the rumours of their relationship. Essentially, the question then becomes whether they were actually more than Ladyfriends – heh.
So when it boils down to the relationship between Annie and Christabel, the tension is engrossing. Mackay’s Annie is reliant on gesticulations, reaching outwards with an outstretched hand as if to get to grips with the ideology her mentor is trying to instil in her. The awkwardness and nervousness as she navigates a changing script is endearing to the audience, while the severity, confidence and self-assuredness of Christabel in assuming everything is Absolutely Fine makes the play particularly riotous, and that’s before you add in the towering guitar and music which drowns out a lot of the monologues.
With only an hour’s running time, it’s understandable that Chapman may look to deploy as much of an artistic license as possible. But while the courageous combination of theatrical styles is to be commended for its innovation, it risks making an otherwise intriguing and undiscovered love story hard to follow.
Ladyfriends is now playing at Camden People’s Theatre until 7 May.
Production Images: Natalie Argent (@mardynat).
Disclaimer: I know the director of this production on a personal level, but this does not influence my perspective of this show or the comments made here.
I was invited to see ‘Ladyfriends’ for free in exchange for a review of the press night performance as a member of the media. I did not receive payment for this article, and all thoughts and opinions stated above are honest and my own.