King’s Head Theatre
Reviewed – 14th April 2019
“there are a few too many abstract scenes where dialogue is paused in favour of movement”
Can you calculate achievement? Can you quantify recognition? Is it possible to predict, without fail, the value of a legacy?
Ada Lovelace thinks so. But somehow her equation is undermined by an unexpected factor: gender. Whenever the subject is female, the value of recognition is minimised, sometimes erased entirely. Determined to explore this idea further, Lovelace gathers female representatives from four areas of society: science, education, the military, and the arts. Together, they endeavour to understand why, in the presence of F, A does not equal R.
Written by the Unsung Collective’s Lisa Holdsworth and performed by four of its members, Unsung is sharp, engaging, and surprising. I never thought I’d see two Victorian women, a war veteran, and a playwright solving an equation inside a submarine, but I’m glad I have. The combined visual of Antony Jones’ set (pipes running up the walls, noticeboards heavy with ideas), frustrated pacing, and khaki boiler suits suggests four women on a mission, boldly venturing into difficult and dangerous territory.
The most memorable aspect is the performers themselves. Olivia Race captivates as Ada Lovelace, whose confinement cannot stop her mathematical mind. She is passionate, enthusiastic, and personable, guiding the audience with gentle commitment. Kirsty Pennycook is dry-witted and stoic as Sophia Jex-Blake, the first female doctor in Scotland. Her anecdotes about emasculated professors and rioting male students are told casually and caustically; Pennycook makes it clear that Jex-Blake was a force to be reckoned with. Lilian Bader, one of the first women of colour to serve in the military, is portrayed with warmth by Riana Duce. She radiates love and respect for her work, but is not blind to the ingratitude of the country that she serves. Claire-Marie Seddon’s performance as Andrea Dunbar, author of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, is the most enjoyable – perhaps because it is the most real. It is not hard to laugh with Dunbar, or feel for her as she is beaten by her boyfriend, but it is sometimes hard to watch knowing her life’s tragic conclusion.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the show dampen the effect of these performances. The background music is often too invasive, stifling the dialogue and its effect. Moreover, there are a few too many abstract scenes where dialogue is paused in favour of movement. This can be a little frustrating: I would much rather hear the women share their stories. Such moments are the highlight of the show, but sadly there weren’t enough.
Despite its flaws, Unsung succeeds in telling the stories of these four forgotten women. With strong performances and a striking visual style, it tackles their lives with the same creativity, individuality and determination with which they were lived.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
King’s Head Theatre
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: