Written by Ross McGregor
Based on the diaries of Anne Lister
15th January - 16th February 2019
The Brockley Jack Studio, London
Directed by Ross McGregor
Lighting Design by Ben Jacobs
Sound Design by Alistair Lax
Design by Odin Corie
Costumes by Bryony Thompson
Movement Direction by Will Pinchin
Associate Directed by Ed Hill
Photography by The Ocular Creative
Stage Managers: Emelia East
Cornelia Baumann - Anne Lister (1830)
Tom Hartill - Arthur Burrell
Lucy Ioannou - Anne Lister (1810)
Laurel Marks - Isabella Norcliffe
Alex Stevens - John Lister
Hannah Victory - Ann Walker
Beatrice Vincent - Marianna Belcombe
Toby Wynn-Davies - Christopher Rawson
LONDON PUB THEATRES - ★★★★
I have ‘form’ with Ross McGregor and his Arrows and Traps Company. Over the years I have seen a number of their very skilled productions. In ‘Gentleman Jack’, presented at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, they don’t disappoint.
The play is based on a true story that utterly enthralls.
For my sins I had never heard of Anne Lister. In my childhood she would have been described as a woman ‘who batted for the other side’. Which is a fairly limited and stupid description of a person whose bravery in the face of much prejudice is greatly to be admired. Anne was born in 1791. In 1826 she inherited the 400 acre estate of Shibden Hall, a little way outside Halifax. The play then chronicles both her personal and professional vicissitudes.
McGregor has chosen to tell the story in a series of flash backs, which works well. (Although I did find the electronic signposting a little tedious. Once introduced to the characters we-the audience-knew exactly where we were.) The young Anne is played with tremendous vivacity by Lucy Ioannou. As a girl she takes a lover in ‘Tib’ Norcliffe (a fine piece of work from Laurel Marks) which was a fairly seminal experience. She then has a series of love affairs culminating in a great passion for Mariana Belcombe (a delightful and intelligent Beatrice Vincent). When Mariana throws her over for a rich man Anne is devastated. All of this history is recorded and documented in diaries that Anne kept throughout her life.
McGregor then shows us the more mature Anne (a dignified and assured Cornelia Baumann-although I would have liked a little more playfulness from this terribly accomplished actor) courting the wealthy Ann Walker. All the rather racy conjoinings are beautifully done. I particularly liked the use of Shakespeare’s ‘Let me to the marriage…etc’. This Sonnet is quite rightly lauded for its beauty. And within the play it brings about a pretty dramatic conclusion.
McGregor usefully lists in the programme notes an entry in the diaries “Three xxx’s better to her than to me’. The X’s, we are told, don’t represent kisses but mutual orgasms.
There are scenes within the play that take the breath away. One such is where the mature Anne goes walking with Ann Walker (a lovingly detailed performance from Hannah Victory). Without going into too much detail it involves a pistol and a tree. It’s beautifully done by all concerned.
Professionally both women triumph in the end. And certainly their victory over the sharp and ruthless Rawson (a chilling Toby Wynn-Davies-and anyone who lists himself as a ‘founder member of an itinerant troupe of quasi-Latvian fire breathing clowns’ deserves every accolade going) is enormously satisfying.
I hope McGregor won’t take this next remark amiss but ‘Gentleman Jack’ is not as ‘showy’ as other works he has written and directed for ‘Arrows and Traps’. It is a quietly meditative piece that is always intelligent, sensitive and profound.
I realise my editor will say of this review, ‘it’s too long Richard’. So suffice to say the sound design of Alistair Lax is superb; ditto the work of Ben Jacobs and Odin Corie.
If the rumour is true-and I never listen to gossip- that McGregor is off to pastures new it’s incredibly sad news for the theatrical world- much worse than that wretched Brexit story.