Subversion is always so effective when performed with sly humour and a knowing wink, and this work-in-progress for Arches Live is no exception.In Cuff, Deb Jones and Alison Peebles have a fully-formed hilarious double act, with a delicious pinch of feminist activism at the core. There is an immediacy to the piece which is incredibly intimate, warm and touching.
Peebles, in full steely-eyed mode, is introduced by Jones as ‘Miss Peebles’, and oversees the audience’s response like a returning officer at a polling station as we cast our anonymous votes on topics such as how effective voting really is in the current political landscape and who we would like to see on a ten pound note.
Jones is her mischievous elfin partner in dissent, whether shimmying up a rope or handing out daffodils and leeks during a vignette on how she brought Welsh nationalism to her school. The rabble rousing even extends to involving each side of the room in a screaming match, parodying the braying Old Boys Network of the House Of Commons.
A conversational tone pervades, in spite of potentially weighty subject matter, such as the force-feeding in prison, and subsequent death of, Suffragete Emily Wilding Davison at the Epsom Derby in 1913, having been accidentally trampled by a horse while protesting for the woman’s right to vote; and the passing of the insidious law Section 28 during Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s reign as Prime Minister, which banned ”the promotion of homosexuality in schools”.
Indeed, the ghost of Margaret Thatcher’s controversial, divisive legacy hangs over Cuff like a warning from history. Thatcher’s voice rings out in chilling, shrill voiceover, aggressive and increasingly demented in its right-wing polemic; the very antithesis of Peebles and Jones’ more measured, life-affirming approach to radicalism. The duo’s skewering of patriarchal oppression may be quietly executed, but it is no less angry nor indignant for that. They lampoon the casual sexism encountered every single day by thousands of women, and there is a shudder of recognition in how far we still have to go in terms of equality, in the workplace and within society in accepting the LGBT community.
An increasingly energised performance culminates in Peebles telling of how she worked in a fish factory in Shetland as a young student and how working conditions were so poor she nearly lost an arm in a packing machine. Despite a telling lack of Union representation, she and several of her colleagues staged a walk-out, resulting in the factory closing down for two days. One small action, Peebles argues, can facilitate change on a mass scale.
With a more inclusive feminism being reclaimed for a new generation, from author Ariel Levy’s success to performer Bridget Christie’s Edinburgh Fringe triumph, it is heartwarming to see two women with a sense of history and experience of their own forms of political protest. Sadly, there is a sense that this wonderful pair are really just preaching to the converted. Nonetheless, this is one of the most funny, strident and humane works yet at Arches Live.