Viva Juanita a triumph for Honiton Players

HONITON Players pulled off a triumph when they staged a musical play about the life and times of the town s longest serving mayor – on the stage of her own former theatre, writes Belinda Bennett.

HONITON Players pulled off a triumph when they staged a musical play about the life and times of the town's longest serving mayor - on the stage of her own former theatre.

From the moment the curtain went up at Meadow View Chapel, audiences were treated to an all-singing, all-dancing account of how actress Juanita Maxwell Phillips conquered local government in a world dominated by men.

Based on research by Tony Simpson and Julia Neville, Viva Juanita - This Is Your Life was written by Players' president Jan Guscott and performed by an enthusiastic cast.

Juanita, played by Jan, was surprised by Eammon Andrews (town crier Dave Retter) as she watched a performance by the talented Salsa Cascara dance group.

The play never strayed from the facts, painting a picture of a feminist before feminism. Esther Pearce and Ann Reed also played the role of Juanita, as her life story unfolded. The mayoral robe they wore looked suspiciously like the real thing!

Although married to prominent Honiton solicitor Tom Phillips, Juanita was jailed six times between 1908 and 1912 for her activities as a suffragette.

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A gripping scene showed women, chained to railings, calling for the vote - and the reaction they received from men ("Go home and make your husbands' teas!").

Juanita was a personal friend of suffragette icon Emmeline Pankhurst and, in spite of her brushes with the law, went on to be given the Freedom of the Borough alongside the likes of Bomber Harris.

The mayor's parlour and her substantial home at Sudbury Lawn (now the JobCentre) was where Juanita set about changing conditions for local women - starting with their treatment in Honiton's former workhouse.

She went on to campaign for contraception for poorer women, for a Devon bed for women cancer victims at the country's first Marie Curie hospital in London and introduced public dancing in Honiton High Street until 2am. Juanita also staved off an attempt by councillors in Exeter to take control of Honiton.

Honiton Band re-enacted the role it played at the opening of the Glen, performing Onward Christian Soldiers.

Honiton pensioner Margaret Robson was depicted as a young woman being told off by Juanita - a true account of life in the town's Food Office during the Second World War.

The second act of the play charted Juanita's withdrawal from public life and her refusal to sell her beloved Little Theatre. She wanted to see it used as a theatre again - something that didn't happen until last week, 44 years after her death at the age of 86.

Honiton Players are indebted to Meadow View Chapel for allowing this to happen, along with Honiton Town Council and The Mullins Trust which financially supported the venture.

The cast ended the play with a pleasing rendition of Don't Cry For Me Argentina.

Credits were given in the programme to all the local people who shared their memories of Juanita, along with the Midweek Herald. The title of the play was inspired by a newspaper headline.

Jan Guscott directed and produced this gem of a show. It painted a picture of a woman who got things done.

Juanita Maxwell Phillips wasn't universally liked, but those who strive to bring about real change seldom are.

Honiton Players deserve great credit for portraying Juanita in a true light.

Viva Juanita was gripping from the start and, above all, it really did tell the story of her life.