Pros: Tremendous acting, wonderful writing, and a fantastic look into the past of an incredible woman.
Cons: There are some slight questions around the character development.
If you ever needed a reason to venture into South East London, Gentleman Jack at the Brockley Jack theatre is it. This true story of a remarkable female pioneer is inspiring, absorbing, and deserves a full house at every performance.
The story of Anne Lister is set across three different decades in the 1800s, as three stories are intermixed through the idea of reading and writing in diaries. John Lister inherits an old family pile in Yorkshire from an eccentric, childless aunt, and finds a series of her coded diaries. In decoding them, he uncovers the life story of Anne (brought to life in younger years by the emphatic and energetic Lucy Ioannou, and in later years by the stoic and charming Cornelia Baumann.)
John knows Anne as a mine owner, a hotelier, and a woman not ruled by societal convention, but as he reads through her diaries, and the crucial, formative moments in her lifetime, her story is brought to life in fantastic glory.
Anne loves women. She loves them very much, and (refreshingly) there’s no suggestion that she questions, or feels any shame or regret, over her feelings. She’s exactly as God made her (something referenced often in the dialogue) and steadfastly wishes to live her life exactly as she is, with no apology.
This is considerably difficult in the 1800s, and she’s challenged regularly by societal norms, and the conflicting feelings from her lovers. There are scenes included of a very, very sexual nature, but this is not a play about sex. It’s a play about love and self-discovery in an age where Anne’s normalisation of her sexuality was unheard of within society.
There is so much on show here to absolutely love. The dialogue is excellent and moving and really, really funny throughout. The cast are wonderful and it’s impossible to find fault in any role. The characters are fully formed, all likeable and frustrating in their own ways. It’s easy to get invested in the three storylines, and the ties together at the conclusion are fantastic.
The scene setting is equally wonderful and yet surprisingly simple. Music appropriate to the period features frequently, and we are every bit in the dark, candle-lit, fireplace warmed, dark and smokey rooms of the North.
Where questions are asked is in the dramatic contrast between the younger Anne and her older, wiser self. It’s believable in every way that young, brash Anne’s romantic experiences shape the romantic experience of adult Anne – and this comes full circle in a lovely and heartwarming way – but there isn’t enough in the ‘crux’ moment of change in Anne’s life which explains her professional drive in her adult life.
Young Anne is solely motivated by sexual pursuits and challenging the status quo in terms of her love. She is never career-driven, and never even out of bed (if she’s not involved in a seduction, she’s sloth-like, sleeping at tables, curling up under blankets.) So where did her incredible and ruthless determination to succeed at business evolve from?
That query aside, there is so much here to celebrate and revel in. Cornelia Baumann’s quietly seething and publicly steely Anne is just excellent. She reveals the layers of her character: Anne’s determination to beat the men at their own game; her brave openness about her sexuality; her ‘devil may care’ attitude towards the gossip and nickname bestowed on her by the villagers. All this is finely balanced with fragility from former heartbreaks and a weakness when her friend is negatively affected from that same gossip, to create a likeable and well-rounded character.
This is an important show for understanding the true story of on incredible woman fighting hard for equality, but also for reflecting on just how far we’ve come, and feeling gratitude towards the trailblazers like Anne who lit the way for so many other women. Don’t miss this.
Author and Director: Ross McGregor
Produced by: Arrows and Traps Theatre
Booking until: Saturday 16 February 2019
Box Office: 0333 666 3366
Booking Link: https://brockleyjack.co.uk/jackstudio-entry/gentleman-jack/#toggle-id-1