Lena Ashwell

Over the Top: A spotlight on actor, manager & Suffragette Lena Ashwell

Posted on 3 December 2018

Over the last few years, the Belgrade’s annual B2 Christmas shows have offered a light-hearted, fast-paced, festive alternative to our Main Stage pantos. But while it’s as packed with puns and slapstick silliness as ever, this year’s B2 Christmas comedy, Over the Top, comes with a slightly more serious subtext, commemorating both the centenary of the end of World War I and 100 years of women’s suffrage.

In honour of this doubly significant occasion, playwright Nick Walker has taken inspiration from the real-life heroics of women working at the Front, who played their part in the war effort as well as in women’s struggle for equal rights and independence.

Following the opening performance of Over the Top on Saturday, this week, we’re shining a spotlight on the four historical figures whose stories are alluded to throughout the show, beginning with actor, producer and theatre manager Lena Ashwell.

If you’re inclined to romanticise an origins story, the circumstances of Lena Ashwell’s birth seem to anticipate a life of travel as well as military interest. Born Lena Margaret Pocock to Sarah Margaret Stevens and Commander Charles Ashwell Boteler Pocock in 1872, Lena Ashwell came into the world on board the famous HMS Wellesley – the Royal Navy ship that had captured Karachi for the British and had participated in the First Opium War (leading to Britain gaining control of Hong Kong).

At the time, the boat was anchored in the River Tyne, serving as a home for “boys unconvicted of crime but under suspicion”, under the command of her father (a nephew of the naval artist Nicholas Pocock).

During her youth, Ashwell would cross continents, growing up in Canada before studying music first in Switzerland and then in London, but before long, she had turned her attention to another kind of performance, making her professional acting debut in The Pharisee in 1891. In 1895, she performed alongside Henry Irving and Coventry icon Ellen Terry in J. Comyns Carr’s King Arthur, going on to play the leads in Mrs Dane’s Defence, Leah Kleschna and The Shulamite.

In 1906, she branched out into theatre management, taking over the reins of London’s famous Savoy Theatre before opening her own venue, the Kingsway Theatre, the following year. But her family’s military background would soon catch up with her, and following the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Ashwell showed herself a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of Britain’s war aims.

Precluded from active service by her sex, Ashwell’s big idea was to use the skills she’d acquired both on and off-stage to organise performances for the troops on the Front Line. Undeterred by the War Office’s initial rejection of her proposals, she tirelessly approached patrons and fellow suffrage campaigners to help her raise the money necessary to put together troupes of actors and musicians and travel with them out to France.

Thanks in part to her connection with the YWCA and Princess Helena Victoria (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and founder of the YWCA Auxiliary Force), she eventually obtained the permission she needed, and in 1915, became the first person to organise large-scale entertainment for troops fighting at the Front.

By the end of the war, she had started up 25 such companies, with over 600 performers (350 of them women), visiting British soldiers and often staying for months at a time delivering music, comedy and theatrical performances in ships, hospitals, base camps and transit stations. After the war, she would recount the therapeutic effects these pop-up shows had on the soldiers, her writings emphasising how ordinary men were particularly enthusiastic about “high culture” such as Shakespeare plays.

An outspoken women’s suffrage campaigner, she founded the Actresses’ Franchise League to campaign for women’s enfranchisement through theatre and education, and her efforts to broaden access to theatre through outreach didn’t end when peace arrived. After the war, she created a group called the Once-a-Week Players, who took performances into local communities in London and beyond, managing to acquire the support of local authorities long before the establishment of proper public funding for the arts.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once described her as possessing an “awakeningly truthful mind as well as an engaging personality,” and this personality shines through in the four books she published during her lifetime: Modern Troubadours, A Record of the Concerts at The Front (1922); Reflections from Shakespeare (1926), edited from a series of lectures she delivered to raise money for her acting company; The Stage (1929), her collected thoughts on the state of theatre and the role of the actor; and her autobiography, Myself a Player (1936).

In the cross-dressing, gender-swapping, panto-infused world of Over the Top, Lena Ashwell becomes Lenny, compère of the Coventry Music Hall variety show which frames the rescue mission at the heart of the story. S/he is played by Aimee Powell, who recently starred in Strictly Arts’ five-star, sell-out run of Freeman at the Edinburgh Fringe and on tour.

Over the Top shows on our B2 Stage until Saturday 29 December. Tickets are available to book now.

You can also find out more about other inspirations for the show elsewhere on our blog, including Lottie Meade and Edith Cavell.