Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, London – until 16 February 2019
Following in the footsteps of last year’s historical drama The White Rose, the Female Firsts repertory season from Arrows & Traps sets out to tell the little-known stories of two different but equally remarkable women. The first of these, Anne Lister, was a 19th-century landowner and businesswoman from Yorkshire, who defied social expectations by refusing to take a husband and openly acknowledging her sexual relationships with other women – an act of rebellion that’s earned her the title of “the first modern lesbian”.
Opening with the discovery of Anne’s coded diaries by her descendant John Lister (Alex Stevens) some 50 years after her death, the play takes us back to two key moments in her life: her tempestuous relationships as a young woman with Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe (Laurel Marks) and Mariana Belcombe (Beatrice Vincent), and several years later, her growing bond with heiress Ann Walker (Hannah Victory), who would go on to become her partner in both business and life. Meanwhile we also see the impact of her diaries on John Lister, who was himself secretly gay, but whose political ambitions held him back from following Anne’s example. (In the end, he hid the diaries for a future generation to find, and they were only finally published in 1988.)
Importantly, writer and director Ross McGregor wears no rose-tinted spectacles in his portrayal; the play is respectful of Anne’s intelligence and courage in the face of extreme prejudice, but at the same time doesn’t shy away from the less savoury aspects of her character. As a young woman, played by Lucy Ioannou, she’s charming and witty, but also manipulative, impatient and cruel, particularly to the devoted Tib.
Cornelia Baumann’s older Anne has matured considerably, and her blossoming relationship with Ann Walker is both believable and engaging – but her tongue remains as sharp as ever, and her refusal to give in to the scare tactics of local businessman Christopher Rawson (Toby Wynn-Davies) often leads her to gamble far more than she can afford to lose. This willingness to see both sides, far from detracting from Anne’s story, brings her all the more vividly to life.
The quality of the writing is matched by that of the production; though simply staged, and perhaps more understated than some of their previous work, it still retains the distinctive Arrows style and is, as always, acted with complete conviction by the cast. As a director, Ross McGregor has an incredible eye for talent and while every performance is excellent, I have to make special mention of Laurel Marks, who deftly balances humour and pathos as she makes an impressive stage debut in the role of Anne’s young lover, Tib.
Photo credit: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative
Gentleman Jack shines a light not only on Anne Lister’s life and legacy as both a woman and a lesbian, but also on the rigid 19th century attitudes that she set out to challenge. Watching the play, you can’t help but be struck not just by how much our society has progressed, but also by how far we still have to go on multiple fronts. A fascinating story brought to life with sensitivity and more than a little humour, it makes for an evening that’s as enlightening as it is entertaining.
Gentleman Jack is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 16th February, performed in rep alongside Shooting With Light, the story of Gerda Taro.
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