Arrows & Traps’ #FemaleFirsts season kicks off with the striking Anne Lister biography Gentleman Jack at the Brockley Jack Theatre
“This is Paris
This is England
And this is Yorkshire!”
The temptation with biographies – particularly of those of trailblazing figures – can be to treat them with the kind of reverence that smooths away rough edges, excusing behaviour that would otherwise be questionable and questioned. So it is pleasing to see that Ross McGregor’s new play Gentleman Jack respects its subject enough to give a full picture of their life.
That subject is Anne Lister, a nineteenth century Yorkshirewoman whose determination to buck societal convention earned her the sobriquet of the “first modern lesbian”. Her daring lay more than just in her open sexuality though; as an heiress and landowner, she redefined expectations of what women could achieve society as she and her partner sought to break into the mining industry.
Such forthright rebellion against the patriarchy naturally comes with rubbing up men the wrong way, but where McGregor’s writing finds real interest is in the uncompromising attitudes Lister struck in her personal life. As she conducted many a love affair from her Halifax base, she demanded nothing less than the same convention-smashing boldness from her lovers. Brave on the one hand, to be sure, but recklessly uncaring of the position that her privilege afforded too – so few others could afford to say f*** you to society in a similar way.
McGregor’s production shows us this by splitting his timeline in three. We see a young Anne (Lucy Ioannou with quicksilver vibrancy) charming her way into a love triangle and cruelly extricating herself from it. A more experienced Anne (the reliably superb Cornelia Baumann) learning how to focus the cutting edge and yet still leave herself open for love. And framing the story is Anne’s descendant John Lister (poignantly played by Alex Stevens), a gay man and aspiring politician whose discovery of the coded diaries she kept strikes an undeniable chord.
Odin Corie’s design wisely keeps the Brockley Jack’s studio as an unfussy black box, endlessly flexible from hilltops to bedchambers, aided by intelligent choices from Odin Corie. And the ensemble maintain the remarkable standards that Arrows & Traps have set for themselves: Laurel Marks is a stand-out as Tib, hopelessly in love with the young Anne, and Hannah Victory also shines as Ann Walker, the woman who would become Anne’s wife. An illuminating work of biography, a compelling piece of LGBT+ history, above all an enjoyable work of theatre.