Ellen Brammar, music by Rachel Barnes
Middle Child with Milk Presents
Writer Ellen Brammar and co-directors Luke Skilbeck and Paul Smith have created something of a cartoon from new play Modest.
It is all caricature, camp and cabaret hung on events from real-life Victorian artist Elizabeth Thompson's career to highlight the ongoing struggle for equality.
Elizabeth Thompson is a painter you have probably never heard of, but possibly would have if things had gone differently for her. A prodigiously talented artist who defied convention by painting military subjects, Modest's Thompson has to fawn to the exclusively male-run Royal Academy of Art to get her painting accepted at the Summer Exhibition of 1874.
It is. Her outstanding canvas is hung in a prominent position and garners unprecedented attention requiring police protection, and Thompson enjoys huge fame and personal popularity.
Both in the text and in Emer Dineen's portrayal of her, Elizabeth is an unpleasantly egotistical diva. She enjoys her celebrity but does not engage with any of her fans who include Bessie, a non-binary working class artist, for whom Thompson is a hero and role model.
Thompson is equally mean-spirited closer to home. When her sister, Alice, asks Elizabeth to use her public profile for the advancement of less advantaged artists, or supporting Alice's campaigning for suffrage more generally, Elizabeth's refusal renders her irredeemably unlikeable, a toddler stamping her foot in ridiculously over-stacked pink boots. You have to wonder whether Brammar and co are making a point here in casting this character in such poor light.
Her uncompromising rejection of Alice's request also shuts down what could have been a broadening of the themes to take in the responsibilities of those with a platform to use it for greater good, and the play could do with this sort of substance rather than merely presenting the self-evident.
Unapologetically remaining on the side of entertainment, Modest is interspersed with songs, with one, "Bossy Women", seriously misfiring. The most memorable—and fun—amongst them has the piece temporarily morph into a drag cabaret with the kings lip-synching and thrusting their way through an otherwise ordinary tune.
The same drag kings play the grotesquely supercilious RA members. Of these, L J Parkinson channels a panto villain in their mastery of presumptive self-importance, against which even the other Academy members struggle to be heard.
Fizz Sinclair plays transgender Alice with more nuance than the writing deserves and a touch of sincerity shared only by Isabel Adomakoh Young's all too brief spell as black artist and suffragist Frances. The play could do with more from these two characters to balance its timbre of overstatement.
Stylistically, mixing up the Victorian with the contemporary serves, lest we forget, to land the point that remarkably little has changed in 150 years, it is only the profile of the marginalised and underrepresented that appears different on the surface.
If, in the end, the play does any more than deliver this reminder, it says something about human nature, foremost its predisposition for self-preservation and to resist change. If Modest is to succeed in getting across its message, it will have to prevail over these in order to be heard by those not sitting in the choir.
Reviewer: Sandra Giorgetti