A nifty ornate clock presides over the stage at Princess Suffragette, the new historical play by Subika Anwar-Khan at London’s VAULT Festival. Instead of hours, the clock, which cast members manipulate by hand, shows decades, running from 1850 to 1940. Sometimes, though, throughout the course of the production, the actors neglect to change the time. According to the clock, then, flashbacks to the mid-1800s take place at the turn of the century, and wartime bombs go off halfway through the 1920s. It’s never made clear whether this is intentional or just an oversight, but that clock is something like the play itself: a fascinating structure in need of some more careful winding up.

Princess Suffragette tells the extraordinary story of Sophia Duleep Singh, the exiled Indian princess turned British socialite (and goddaughter of Queen Victoria) who became a leading player in the fight for women’s suffrage in England. It’s unquestionably a tale worth telling and Anwar-Khan’s writing and Charlie Ely’s direction rightly emphasize Singh’s dramatic conversion from spoiled belle of the ball to fierce humanitarian. Compressing Singh’s life into a sixty-minute journey, with frequent detours back into the early days of the British Raj for ancestral monologues, makes for an experience that is often more bewildering than edifying. Clocks aside, the flashbacks are often hard to follow, and keeping up with Anwar-Khan’s fluid movement through history often necessitates a degree of prior knowledge that may be unreasonable for most audiences.

Avita Jay stands out from the four-person cast in her warm portrayal of Sophia’s eldest sister Bamba, who has the innate empathy that Sophia initially lacks but whose paranoia, especially when she returns to India, cripples her. Jay also shows impressive range in smaller flashback moments as Sophia’s mother and grandmother as well as an insensitive English aristocrat.

Jessica Andrade’s Princess Sophia charms early on but could use a bit more bite and fervour as she comes into her own politically. While the anonymous agents of imperialism and anti-suffrage speak through microphones, as if untouchable and unreachable forces, Anwar-Khan’s script, along with Andrade’s performance, generates the most sparks in a scene in which Princess Sophia confronts a government man who has come to confiscate her property when she refuses to pay a fine until women are granted the right to vote. As she dresses him down for his blind loyalty to the authorities, the princess’ strength and moral clarity finally comes into focus.

There’s something powerful in the way that Jay and Navinder Bhatti (in a series of smaller roles, spanning both continents) move seamlessly between playing British Indian and Caucasian characters, suggesting the complexities of identity that both the historical figures, and the actors who portray them, encounter. Less successful is the casting of Megan McKie-Smith in a few Indian roles, which is at best confusing and at worst offensive: at one point she dons a heavy Indian accent. When the cross-cultural casting of Jay and Bhatti seems so deliberate and political, placing a white actress in South Asian roles only muddies that impact.

The play’s hasty ending doesn’t quite leave time for drawing back together the two strands that have motivated Princess Sophia: her British Indian identity and her strong stance on women’s rights. A more full-length, less-frenzied structure would allow Anwar-Khan to develop and synthesise these elements of Singh’s life more crisply and compellingly. Princess Suffragette makes a convincing case that Singh’s story deserves to be heard, but why not free her odyssey from the constraints of a ticking clock?

Princess Suffragette played at the VAULT Festival until 26 February. 

Photo: Talissa Makdessi