“Bloomers! Bicycles! Class warfare!” screams the ticket for this homely but highly professional production. To that I might add “Laughter!” and “Mild Social Angst!”, for Sara Harris’ light-hearted script manages to be properly rib-tickling, while challenging a few complacent assumptions at the same time. Based on a true story from the dying days of the 19th century, it’s the tale of one woman’s crusade for “rational dress” – otherwise known as “bifurcated clothing” or, more prosaically, trousers.
The trousers in question belonged to Viscountess Florence Harberton, a champion of women’s rights and also a keen cyclist. While pedalling one day in her “rationals”, she chanced upon the Hautboy Hotel in Ockham, Surrey, and its indomitable proprietor Mrs Martha Sprague. Sprague considered the Viscountess inadequately clad and barred the doors of her dining-room. And so began a celebrated court case – which arrayed the legal might of the Cyclists Touring Club against a recalcitrant, and entirely unremorseful, Mrs Sprague.
It’s a tale that could easily be reduced to caricature, but Harris proves subtler and cleverer than that. The Viscountess might be a feminist but she’s also a terrible snob, who squeals at the thought of meeting a labourer and treats all around her with imperious disdain. History places her on the right side of the trouser debate, but frowns at her attitude to society – and for all we may value equal rights, it’s hard not to root for the feisty working-class inn-keeper.
The script is as perky as it’s thoughtful, filled with unexpected motifs and witty asides. It cracks along at the brisk pace the comic tone demands, and it’s populated by a surprisingly large number of minor characters, each of whom is just as finely-drawn as the leads. The barristers, the campaigners, the newspaper-man – they’re all fine pastiches, perfectly realised by a versatile and hard-working cast. Julia Knight, meanwhile, provides accompaniment on the piano, in a deft recollection of a world before backing tracks played over the PA.
Director Emma Bird makes clever use of the Friends Meeting House, sending actors up to the balcony to lord over their peers and arranging the opposing factions at opposite ends of the central walkway. There is still something of a church-hall feel to the production, and there were a few too many fumbled lines on the opening night. But the informality is arguably part of the charm – and I found myself surprisingly eager to join in at the end with a crowd-bonding audience singalong.
This is the kind of show the Fringe is all about: low-key, well-constructed, and inspired by a quirky footnote to history. And while it’s not a strident or campaigning play, I can’t resist noting how refreshing it is to see male and female roles equally strongly written, equally strongly cast and equally strongly played. Funny and free-spirited, it’s the kind of work it’s rational to be passionate about.