New Canadian Musical LANCASHIRE LASS Explores British History Through A Soaring Score

The Lancashire Lass by Leslie Arden.
The Lancashire Lass by Leslie Arden.

A Canadian musical about the suffragette movement may sound like a surprising combination to some. On May 27, the Watershed Festival presented award-winning composer and DAN School of Drama and Music’s artist-in-residence Leslie Arden’s latest commission The Lancashire Lass, a full-length musical that will receive its premiere at next year’s festival. 

Watershed viewers were lucky enough to catch some selections from the musical before its eventual staging. Directed by Tim Fort, The Lancashire Lass proves how effective storytelling, musical technique, and a strong digital adaptation can create engaging theatre over time and space.

The Lancashire Lass is set during the Suffragette Movement and told through the eyes of Annie Kenney (Melissa Morris), an extremely ambitious yet internally conflicted woman. Opening with Alice (Jessica Rosales), explaining the grim political and economic climate for women in early 1900s England. 

What was particularly interesting about the performance was the editing and the film feel, rather than filmed theatre, which I expected. The use of Sepia helped to depict the bleakness of England for women before the Suffragette Movement. When the ensemble came to sing, their floating heads together on-screen made for engaging viewing, which also helped to suggest the collective strength of these women hoping to create political change.

However, the show’s real star was Arden’s score, which was so beautiful and mesmerizing. The score felt specifically British and older, but still had that classic musical theatre feel to it that contemporary scores often lack. I wish I could have downloaded the score immediately after the performance. I can only imagine how audiences will react to this musical when staged live in person. The harmonies and vocals of the show as a result were also a delight to listen to and musically directed by Darrell Christie

The reality that Queen’s students, alumni, and theatre professionals have the opportunity to participate in brand new Canadian musicals as a result of these residencies is beyond exciting. This residency will allow Queen’s students to participate in original works by a renowned Canadian composer, which will only strengthen their competitive edge in the workforce. The residency offers an incredibly practical and professional experience for all those involved, which academic courses at the Dan School can occasionally be devoid of.

The actual premise of the show, women seeking the right to vote, felt as relevant as ever.  Of course, the racism within the movement was beyond horrific, as it only granted white women the right to vote. The musical does not sufficiently address the racism embedded with the movement, which is beyond ironic given the racist history of the movement. However, it was great to see a variety of performers of colors involved in the production.  Despite Canadian women having the right to vote in 2021, issues around gender inequality persist. Whether it’s how women have disproportionately suffered throughout the pandemic or the reality that Canadian women still make 32 cents less than men, and women of color making even less than that, the fight to achieve total gender equality is still yet to be achieved. Audiences, specifically female audiences and those who have experienced any form of discrimination, will likely connect to these women’s struggles to achieve basic freedoms. 

Lancashire Lass proved the inevitable power of musical theatre, even when experienced virtually. Kingston audiences are in for a sure treat when this riveting musical eventually makes its way on-stage.