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Modest by Ellen Brammar at Kiln Theatre

Imaginations run wild, perhaps gloriously so, in this energetic production that sees ‘drag talent’ (as the show’s publicity would have it) take on a whole lot more than the usual exaggerated costumes and expressions. Features commonplace to drag shows are abound – the lip-syncing, the actual singing, the choreography – though this is more of a play with songs than a full-blown musical. More than the typical amount of suspension of disbelief is required to appreciate proceedings. A trio of Royal Academicians, who use the post-nominal letters RA after their name, members of the Royal Academy of Arts, gather in 1874. They are everything the show requires them to be – set in their ways, pompous, with misogynistic outlooks.

Modest - Photo by Tom Arran for Middle Child.
Modest – Photo by Tom Arran for Middle Child.

But such stuffy individuals would not be expected to break out into negligible dance moves, let alone the relatively sophisticated routines showcased in this production. Further, I am still undecided as to whether there is too much swearing – or too little: I don’t doubt Victorians in private conversation may well have used vocabulary they would have refrained from in a more public setting, and while plays written and set in that era are largely devoid of strong language, this may be at least in part due to the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain prior to the 1968 Theatres Act.

This, for the avoidance of doubt, is a new play, and one prepared to steer away from stereotypes – Elizabeth Thompson (1846-1933) (Emer Dineen), later known as Lady Butler, far from displaying the humility the play’s title suggests, is instead self-spoken, self-assured and self-admittedly selfish, not seeing herself as a trailblazer or beacon for women’s rights, but rather as someone trying to be successful in life, just like everyone else trying to succeed in life.

The show plays to the gallery (so to speak), with the start of both Acts One and Two sounding like the beginning of a gig, a comedy night, or a game of darts, asking the audience if we are ready. Isabel Adomakoh Young, doubling up in one scene as black activist Frances and a member of the Royal Academy’s ‘Hanging Committee’ (that is, the group that determines what paintings hang where in the Academy), possesses exquisite comic timing.

The music in the show is wide-ranging, even if technically very un-1870s, although this seems to tie in with a wider point the production wants to make – namely, some of the issues raised in the narrative retain a relevance to contemporary society, which is something of an indictment of the apparently more enlightened times in which we live. It’s not an entirely family-friendly performance, with some heavily sexualised elements.

In all the hustle and bustle of a deliberately loud and brash show, there are nonetheless some points to reflect on: in order to achieve the kind of success that Thompson wants for herself, what price must she pay? Does it really matter if she is elected to the Academy? Can’t she just paint anyway, and as her sister Alice (a highly engaging Fizz Sinclair) points out, send her work to other places? And what are women who also aspire to be professional artists supposed to make of the decisions she takes?

Perhaps because of its hybrid nature, it’s difficult to know quite how much dramatic licence has been used – how acerbic were the putdowns by the old guard at the Academy to Thompson? One or two drew audible gasps from some in the audience. But Thompson is not presented through rose-tinted lenses in a ‘warts and all’ account. Best enjoyed if you’re looking for something quirky and unique.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

“Cause here she comes. She’s the baddest, bitchin’ babe of art.”

In 1874 Elizabeth Thompson stuns the Royal Academy with her painting, Roll Call. Five years later, she falls two votes short of becoming the first woman elected to the academy.

In between, she must shoulder the hopes and dreams of women across the country – including her suffragette sister – while fighting for her place at a table full of top hats, ties and mutton chop beards.

Theatre, music hall and drag king swagger collide as Modest brings you a Victorian art scene superstar.

Performed by a cast featuring the UK’s hottest drag talent, this electrifying new play will break your heart and start a revolution.

Kiln Theatre presents
A Middle Child production in collaboration with Milk Presents

Cast: Isabel Adomakoh Young, Jacqui Bardelang, Emer Dineen, Lj Parkinson, Fizz Sinclair, Libra Teejay

Writer Ellen Brammar; Co-directed by Luke Skilbeck (Milk Presents) and Paul Smith (Middle Child); Composer & Musical Director Rachel Barnes; Set Design QianEr Jin; Lighting Design Jessie Addinall; Sound Design and Music Production Eliyana Evans; Costume Design Terry Herfield; Movement Directors Tamar and Jo Dance Company; Assistant Director Prime Isaac; Dramaturgy Matthew May, Luke Skilbeck, Paul Smith.

By Ellen Brammar
Music by Rachel Barnes
at Kiln Theatre, 269 Kilburn High Rd, London NW6 7JR

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