Unsung: Timely & Passionate

Thursday 14th March 2019 at Harrogate Theatre (Studio).

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Unsung is an excellent concept: four great women from different historical periods chewing the fat about just why it is that women have been (and still are) so under-appreciated. It’s a new play from Lisa Holdsworth and a strong cast of four fierce females take on the roles of Ada Lovelace (Olivia Race), Sophia-Jex Blake (Kirsty Pennycook), Lilian Bader (Riana Duce) and Andrea Dunbar (Claire-Marie Seddon).

Ada Lovelace leads. She’s busy scrawling away on a chalk board of equations and keeps returning to the same problem. Stumped. A=R. Achievement = Recognition. But the facts don’t support this conclusion, and the spanner in the works is the addition of F to the equation: Female.

From here we are introduced to our four historical heroines and are gifted the opportunity to eavesdrop on one hell of an imagined exchange. I mean, can you imagine Andrea Dunbar having a chinwag with Sophia-Jex Blake? Holdsworth does the imagining for us, and there are great doses of humour and humanity in their exchanges as cultural shifts cause comic hurdles in communication while a lack of societal shifts give the women woeful shared experiences.

There’s a collective strength in the performances of this cast. Race is an enthusiastic force to be reckoned with as Lovelace and it’s a great fit to have her essentially narrate as a voice of wisdom, however perplexed that voice is in the moment. Duce is all eloquence and gentle strength as Bader while Pennycook gives a dignified performance inspiring real connection with Blake’s uniquely unjust story. Seddon has the same kind of magnetism as Julie Walters did in Educating Rita – it’s fantastic to watch her take on Dunbar as a rough creative diamond not really up for taking anyone’s bull but also incredibly sensitive to success.

Elvi Piper directs, and there’s a distinctly surreal tone to this direction of our ‘characters’ who sport boiler suits complete with name tags (Antony Jones) as visions of women who have grafted – the invisible workforce of bygone times (the only indicators of era are a few well placed details – collars, cuffs or headwear). 

It’s a dynamic reflected in narrative style, which sees the women repeatedly caught up in some sort of limbo-cycle of rejection, resilience and eventual defeat. The women are seemingly aware of their disparate contextual backgrounds and Lovelace appears to have a kind of omniscience about her fellow females in arms.

There are some well conceived and stylish sequences of movement to portray this sense of invisibility and trekking down endless corridors, knocking on endless doors and being endlessly dismissed. Some of those sequences however are not sharp enough and stretch on for significantly too long. While the music of local Leeds band Peake is a rousing contributor to the overall epic—history feel of the piece, it’s really not necessary for the physical sequences to extend to the length of entire songs when the real impact of the concept is readily captured quite quickly.

One of the best things about Unsung, aside from its glaring timeliness, is that it feels series-worthy. So very many women deserve this kind of attention and the overall writing and approach here lends itself to the telling of a great many more stories than this four.

Yet although each woman has her story told, the stories are relatively brief – and while that’s disappointing, it’s a good sign to have wanted to hear more from each of these accomplished women. With some greater depth in the telling of their stories, I think Unsung could become something truly wonderful. As it stands, it’s a great work, but it feels too brief for the material being explored – at just under sixty minutes, it’s short and it’s passionate, but I wanted more! 

Unsung is a clever piece of new writing which taps into current affairs and interests very nicely. The women all share inspirational and to an extent, relatable moments and thanks to a passionate cast, each woman is portrayed with substance. I’d have liked more time and development given over to the telling of their stories and I think there could have been time and space to do this if some of the more abstract sequences were trimmed of excess. The best of Unsung lies in the concept, the writing and the performances. Catch it if you can.

Unsung Collective continues to tour Unsung until April 27th and you can find information about. Ensues and tickets here.

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