JUMP TO: Broken Biscuits
Shelagh Stephenson’s new play Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing could have been preachy, but instead forms an intelligent insight into the attitudes of early Victorian Britain.
Live Theatre has had a busy end to 2016, with three productions in three months. Amongst them, I had high hopes for a new play by Shelagh Stephenson. She is best known for The Memory of Water, which is a fantastic play (don’t watch the film adaptation, see the vastly superior stage version). This one, however, is the second of a Tyneside-based trilogy, a more fact-based drama with a stronger local connection, directed by jointly by her and Live’s artistic director Max Roberts. Harriet Martineau, regarded by many as the first female sociologist – and regarded by some as the first feminist – stayed in a Tynemouth boarding house for five years, unable to leave because of an illness. But was she really unable to leave?
With identity politics all the rage over large swathes of the arts right now, I did have a slight worry this play might reappropriate a historical story to put shoehorned parallels with modern political narratives first and accuracy a long way second. But instead this play takes a very different route. It does not lecture on morals, rather it explores how different attitudes were in 1848 to the issues Harriet championed. Today, it goes without saying that slavery is bad and votes for women are good. In this play, however, one issue is met with broad ambivalence and the other is a fanciful notion barely anyone given thought to. There are bizarre social expectations such as eccentric Impie, formerly looked down on as a spinster; after a ten-day abortive marriage ended with her useless husband’s death by falling pig (no, really), she’s suddenly elevated to the far more respectable status of widow.
Few characters in this play are unambiguously good or unambiguously bad. Harriet’s brother-in-law Thomas has his heart in the right place, but he’s reluctant to stand up to the social expectations of the day. Robbie ought to be the villain of the piece as an out-and-out racist; but under the surface he’s just an idiot who believes all the rubbish he’s been told about those brown people, completely out of his depth with the mixed-race niece who’s ended up in his care. Only Beulah punches above her weight – seemingly cowed into subservience by her uncle, she comes into her own the moment he’s out of the way.
Harriet, too, is far from one side of an ideological coin. One must suspect she bonds with Impie so well because they both have a long list of eccentricities. Still, perhaps this is what made Harriet a radical of her day. It would seem one of the best ways to combat a system where speaking out is stifled – through social expectations and a desire to fit in – is to not give a damn about what anyone else thinks of you. She’s far from perfect too. Ahead of her time in women’s right and racial equality, for sure, but when maid and support Jane suggests that maybe Harriet should do her own housework like she does? A lot slower on the class divide.
The other theme that features heavily in the play is Victorian pseudoscience. Unlike the black-and-white issues of slavery and votes for women, this one is far more nuanced. Quack treatments are all the rage; Robbie buys into “phrenology”, some rubbish where who can tell everything from the shape of someone’s skull, and it’s pretty obvious he was suckered in by a charlatan telling him what he wanted to hear. Harriet, meanwhile, swears that the equally nonsensical art of “mesmerism” is the thing to get her well again. Easy to laugh at, easy to point out the placebo effect, but is making people believe they’re getting better entirely a bad thing? Especially when the patient’s illness may also be something of her own imagination?
So, with an intriguing setting and interesting characters, I’ve only one fault to nit-pick – and this is an odd one – in fact, it’s the last thing I’d have expected to take issue with. The production used music of northern folk greats The Unthanks. I assumed this would mean they’d written the music for this play – instead, it was an instrumental of the titular track of their latest album, Mount the Air. Now, I like Shelagh Stephenson, I like this play, I like The Unthanks, and I love Mount the Air – but should you use their most played song? Okay, not everyone will know this song, but with the production so heavily advertising music by The Unthanks, you can expect this production would have attracted a lot of Unthanks fans who’d know exactly what was being used – nor does it help that Mount the Air is already associated with a different story shown in this wonderful video of theirs. The dancing sequences in the play are already the most disjointed component of the play, and this gave the impression this was included specifically so that Mount the Air could be in the play. It was a bit of a shame, because it ended up giving Harriet Martineau Dream of Dancing a bit of jukebox musical quality it didn’t need. It was great that The Unthanks, collaborated with Live, just that they could have made a lot more out of a collaboration.
But that’s just a niggle – it’s a clever play that combines interesting characters with an intelligent insight of the values of the day. This doesn’t quite live up to Stephenson’s giddy heights of The Memory of Water. That play seemingly built up the characters in Act One only to turn everything on its head in Act Two; here, once you get to know the characters, you’re generally right first time. But it does show Shelagh Stephenson has many strings to her bow and not just one smash hit. A strong piece from the writer, a strong performance from the cast and a good conclusion to the main house plays of the year.
Also showing: Broken Biscuits
Harriet Marineau came hot on the heels of another main house production the month before, Broken Biscuits by Tom Wells. This was a joint production between Live Theatre and Paines Plough. In practice, joint productions often end up the artistic brain-child of one or the other. My hunch is that this one, written by Tom Wells and directed by James Grieve was largely under creative direction of Paines Plough, as it’s stylistically similar to other Paines Plough plays I’ve seen in previous years.
Broken Biscuits is about three school leavers who are friends with each other because, it seems, they’re the school rejects who no-one else wants to hang around with. Overweight Megan, jealous of her old brother’s action with more popular ladies; gay Ben, uncomfortable about being part of a family with his mother’s new husband’s ultra-masculine sons, and Faye, the geek girl. Have to say, I’m a little sceptical about all of these new supposedly geek kids coming forwards ever since they decided a few years ago that geekery is now cool. However, apparently this particular school didn’t receive that memo, and it’s still “YOUR TRAINERS ARE GAY! I’M GOING TO DO YOU!” Okay Faye, go on, benefit of the doubt.
The trio have the idea that they can put together a band and join sixth form as the cool kids. Or rather, Megan has the idea. Even at the bottom of the pile, there is a hierarchy and what Megan says goes. She also takes an overbearing interest in the boy that shy Faye has noticed in her job at the checkout. That, perhaps, is the step too far, that strains their fragile alliance to the limit.
But whilst the setting and characters are good, the story was painfully slow-moving. The scenes take place over each of the weekly band rehearsals, but the plot barely advances in each scene. And whilst I appreciate that a large part of the scenes needed to be given over to the characters and their changing relations to each other, a lot of it felt like it was repeating the same things too often. Paines Plough tends to go for stories with a gentle pace and lots of character development, but particular one went overboard on that and ended up one the worst offenders for my “get on with it” test. Perhaps this play’s chosen length was too long for the story it contained.
There are, however, some nice touches in the play. In particular, Faye’s shy self-composed song about her new flame in the supermarket (written in real life by Matthew Robins) was lovely. I would definitely rate Harriet Martineau as the stronger of the two with more to say, but if you don