Jack Studio Theatre
Reviewed – 17th January 2019
“Arrows and Traps’ adaptation of her diaries balances its positive and negative aspects to great effect”
In 1880, aspiring politician John Lister (Alex Stevens) discovers a collection of diaries written and encoded by a distant relation. But when he and his friend Arthur (Tom Hartill) set about deciphering them, the author could not contrast more sharply with their expectations. Anne Lister was known as “Gentleman Jack”: a coal mine owner, an adventurer, an unabashed chronicler of her affairs with women. Back then, she was an eccentric; today, she is known as ‘the first modern lesbian’.
Given her place in British LGBT history, it would be easy to romanticise or simplify Lister’s story. But Arrows and Traps’ adaptation of her diaries balances its positive and negative aspects to great effect. Skipping between her youth and the last decade of her life, writer/director Ross McGregor shows Anne’s intelligence and tenacity: she is fluent in Ancient Greek, well-travelled, and extremely determined. But he also highlights the practical dilemmas she faces, such as debt, and the aggressive single-mindedness that inhibits her progress. Her wit, confidence, and kindness are emphasised alongside her coldness and cruelty towards the women she loves. Anne is not a saintly hero who triumphs, through sheer force of will, over her male detractors: she is highly complex, succeeding and failing in equal measure, but always learning from her mistakes.
McGregor’s script is well-structured and effectively shows Anne’s development from a brash idealist into a serious businesswoman. The frequent change of time period is shown via backscreen projections, whilst the set is simple and versatile enough to work for any era. A long table quite easily becomes a bed or hill; Alistair Lax’s subtle use of sound provides a sense of atmosphere. This allows the scenes to feel real without being overdone, and draws all the focus onto the actors.
Lucy Ioannou plays the young Anne with confidence and flair, investing scenes with humour and energy. Cornelia Baumann, as her older counterpart, shows the same flair, but also provides a sense of maturity and warmth. Despite their differences, the two Anne’s match each other well and are very believably the same person. Of the supporting cast, Laurel Marks’ Tib Norcliffe is a highlight. Marks is both naturally funny and adept at showing Tib’s hidden depths, making her a well-rounded character as opposed to mere comic relief. Hannah Victory’s grounded performance as Ann Walker is a great contrast to Baumann’s; Alex Stevens’ sensitive readings from Anne’s diaries highlight her talent as a writer.
It is only fitting that a woman who was so open and outspoken should be portrayed in such an uncensored way. Gentleman Jack more than does justice to Anne Lister, and serves as a reminder of her extraordinary legacy, bold character and, ultimately, her humanity.
Reviewed by Harriet Corke
Photography by Davor Tovarlaza
Jack Studio Theatre until 19th February
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