The lost play, ‘Between Two Fires’, was written by the famous suffragette and socialist activist Sylvia Pankhurst while in solitary confinement in HMP Holloway. Now 100 years later, the play, secretly written with a contraband pencil on prison issued toilet paper, has been pieced together by Pankhurst’s biographer Rachel Holmes and its first ever performance was held last night (April 30th 2023) at the London Library. 


The most complete of the extracts reconstructed were performed in a rehearsed reading directed by Roxana Silbert and the talented cast featured Freya Mavor, Michael Gould, Sam Newton, Jamie Sives and Martina Laird. Several key scenes from the incomplete play were performed and what was so striking was the modern relevance to today’s political climate. Sylvia Pankhurst wrote ‘Between Two Fires’ as a dramatisation of her own experiences fighting for social and political change. It is a discussion about inequality in society (particularly between the classes), workers’ rights, gender equality and socialism – issues which are still front-page news today. Based on the early days of the Labour Party and why it was founded, the first scene in particular was a discussion on whether socialism and the women’s rights movement could work hand in hand to benefit each other.


The reading was followed up by a panel discussion with Pankhurst’s biographer Rachel Holmes, Helen Pankhurst the granddaughter of Pankhurst and activist herself, playwriter Sonali Bhattacharyya whose plays have been inspired by Pankhurst, and The London Library’s own archivist Nathalie Belkin. One of the points presented by the latter was the fact that 80 suffragettes were active members of the Library including Sylvia’s father Richard Pankhurst and sister Christabel Pankhurst. Given the link between the Pankhurst family and the Library, it was a very appropriate host for the play’s first performance. 


I had the opportunity to speak to the Director of the London Library Philip Marshall, who said: “The London Library has been a great resource for writers and thinkers for over 180 years. We are delighted to host such a thought-provoking play with such an incredible back-story, especially because of our historic connections with social campaigners such as the women’s suffrage movement and the Pankhurst family in particular.”  


The evening was streamed (as well as being performed to a live audience) as part of the London Library’s LitFest, enabling it to reach a wider audience. More information about the Library is available here:


All in all, the play and discussion offered an opportunity to delve deeper into Sylvia’s life and legacy, while acknowledging the unfortunate poignancy her work still has today in a world she envisioned as potential being a society of equality.