‘An illuminating work of biography’: GENTLEMAN JACK – Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

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Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 16 February 2019

The temptation with biographies – particularly of those of trailblazing figures – can be to treat them with the kind of reverence that smooths away rough edges, excusing behaviour that would otherwise be questionable and questioned. So it is pleasing to see that Ross McGregor’s new play Gentleman Jack respects its subject enough to give a full picture of their life.

That subject is Anne Lister, a 19th-century Yorkshirewoman whose determination to buck societal convention earned her the sobriquet of the “first modern lesbian”. Her daring lay more than just in her open sexuality though; as an heiress and landowner, she redefined expectations of what women could achieve society as she and her partner sought to break into the mining industry.

Such forthright rebellion against the patriarchy naturally comes with rubbing up men the wrong way, but where McGregor’s writing finds real interest is in the uncompromising attitudes Lister struck in her personal life. As she conducted many a love affair from her Halifax base, she demanded nothing less than the same convention-smashing boldness from her lovers. Brave on the one hand, to be sure, but recklessly uncaring of the position that her privilege afforded too – so few others could afford to say f*** you to society in a similar way.

McGregor’s production shows us this by splitting his timeline in three. We see a young Anne (Lucy Ioannou with quicksilver vibrancy) charming her way into a love triangle and cruelly extricating herself from it. A more experienced Anne (the reliably superb Cornelia Baumann) learning how to focus the cutting edge and yet still leave herself open for love. And framing the story is Anne’s descendant John Lister (poignantly played by Alex Stevens), a gay man and aspiring politician whose discovery of the coded diaries she kept strikes an undeniable chord.

Odin Corie’s design wisely keeps the Brockley Jack’s studio as an unfussy black box, endlessly flexible from hilltops to bedchambers, aided by intelligent choices from Odin Corie. And the ensemble maintain the remarkable standards that Arrows & Traps have set for themselves: Laurel Marks is a stand-out as Tib, hopelessly in love with the young Anne, and Hannah Victory also shines as Ann Walker, the woman who would become Anne’s wife. An illuminating work of biography, a compelling piece of LGBT+ history, above all an enjoyable work of theatre.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Photos: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Gentleman Jack is booking in rep with Shooting With Light at the Brockley Jack until 16th February
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Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."
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Ian Foster on FacebookIan Foster on RssIan Foster on Twitter
Ian Foster
Since 2003, Ian Foster has been writing reviews of plays, sometimes with a critical element, on his blog Ought to Be Clowns, which has been listed as one of the UK's Top Ten Theatre Blogs by Lastminute.com, Vuelio and Superbreak. He averages more than 350+ shows a year. He says: "Call me a reviewer, a critic or a blogger, and you will apparently put someone or other's nose out of joint! So take it or leave it, essentially this is my theatrical diary, recording everything I go to see at the theatre in London and beyond, and venturing a little into the worlds of music and film/TV where theatrical connections can be made."

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