March of the Women

Sandi Toksvig, Sue Perkins, Susan Calman, Marin Alsop… sorry, what? The finest lesbian (or lesbitarian as Calman would have it) comedians of the decade all on stage together and … the world’s leading woman conductor?  OK you got me, I didn’t know what I’d got tickets for, but I’m very glad I was there, for Mirth Control,  the closing event of Women of the World at the Southbank this weekend.

I began to have an inkling of what was actually going to happen when we arrived to find the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall set up for an Orchestra, and a slide show of images from the suffragette movement on a screen above.

“OOh!” I said, “do you think they’ll get us to sing the March of the Women, with the words on-screen and a bouncy ball to tell us where we’ve got to, like they used to have in pantomimes?”

Ms Toksvig, bearing a passing resemblance to a scarab in a green and purple shot satin suit, was witty and informative as she whisked through the history of women’s suffrage and introduced the 88 strong women’s orchestra brought together especially for the show to play the overture to Dame Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers, rarely performed and unjustly overlooked IMHO.  Predates and foreshadows Britten’s sea interludes, and something I have a great fondness for as it accompanied the writing of the first section on my epic fantasy novel.  The orchestra attacked with panache, Sue Perkins conducted with precision and gusto.

Although I thought I’d come for an evening of comedy it was the music that held me, and the very happy feeling of hundreds of women sharing this experience, it quite took me back to the 1980’s when I used to do this all the time. 

Quite rightly, Sandi Toksvig took time to thank the Southbank’s artistic director Jude Kelly, for planning the festival and conference, and Helena Kennedy  presented Ms Kelly with a ‘votes for women’ penny as featured in the British Museum’s history of the world in 100 objects.

And I would like to add my thanks, not just for this weekend, but for the way Jude Kelly has made the Southbank so much  more accessible.  Through her efforts to get people involved, I have taken part in choir festivals, day projects and, the toughest thing I’ve ever done, REwind: Cantata by Philip Miller.  Not only did I get to sing on stage at the Royal Festival Hall, but when we were rehearsing (and really struggling, I have to be honest) Jude turned up at Blackheath Halls where we were rehearsing. 

I don’t know whether Paul, our choir master knew she was coming,  but we certainly didn’t, and weren’t all that pleased to be distracted by a strange woman wandering in… we glared with hostility (sorry about that Jude!).  A lot of people had dropped out because it was difficult to sing, more had dropped out because once they’d got to grips with the music and listened to what we were singing, and what it was interlaced with, they found it too distressing  (and it is distressing, it really is), and those of us hanging in there and trusting to it-will-be-all-right-on-the-night, were unbelievably grateful that Jude bothered to come out to Blackheath and tell us we had a right to be on that stage.  I for one needed that.  And it was all right on the night, in fact it was more than all right, it was phenomenal.

As was Sunday’s event.  we did finish with Ethel Smyth’s The March of the Women: a swift lesson from the wonderful Mary King, (“are those your own lungs?” Sandi asked as Mary launched into the very high first line) support from the ‘Women of the World Chorus” drawn from Southbank’s own Voicelab and including our friends Trish and Judith (hi girls) and several hundred women and a handful of men joined in, conducted by Marin Alsop a la Ethel Smyth, with a toothbrush.  I don’t know how many the QEH holds, but it was full and we really went for it.

shoulder to shoulder, and friend to friend.

This is going to be an annual event.  I’m booking the whole weekend out for next year.

copyright Cherry Potts 2011