In recent years a movement has developed tasked with restoring lost historical female figures to prominence. Books from the likes of Jenni Murray, Cathy Newman and Hannah Jewell aim to bring these women to our attention, while the likes of Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls and the Little People, BIG DREAMS series are a popular source for inspiring children. Tapping into this movement, Unsung is a new play created by Unsung Collective, a group of Leeds-based theatre makers, about the women who made – or ought to have made – British history.
Written by Lisa Holdsworth, the play addresses the problem of female recognition. We meet Ada Lovelace (Olivia Race), a 19th-century aristocratic mathematician, who is struggling to calculate a formula on a blackboard: why does achievement (A) fail to equal recognition (R) where the achievement is that of a woman? She turns to three other women who span the 19th and 20th-century to seek a solution: Sophia Jex-Blake (Kirsty Pennycock), Lilian Bader (Riana Duce) and Andrea Dunbar (Claire-Marie Seddon). Together they represent four disciplines, science, education, military and arts respectively.
In case you have – quite understandably – never heard of them: Sophia was one of the first seven women to study medicine at Edinburgh University in 1869, going on to become the first practising female doctor in Scotland; Lilian was the first black woman to join the RAF; and Andrea was a working-class playwright – her first play premiered in London when she was just 18, having originated from a school English assignment.
Decked in mint green boiler suits, the quartet examines Ada’s problem via discussion of their own experiences. Namely, their shared experience of rejection in pursuit of “education, job, respect, voice” – a mantra they repeat throughout a central piece of physical theatre in which they navigate a sticky-tape grid symbolising their struggles. As they move precariously between the squares, confined to the small spaces, I am reminded of Lily Myers’ viral poetry slam video, “Shrinking Woman”. Both present the idea that women are socialised to grow inward and apologise for making their voices heard. Though slightly Drama GCSE-esque in its portrayal, the play’s repeated message of male rejection is clear as each character mimics hitting a unopened door at the grid’s edge.
However, the intermittent physical theatre is distracting at times. The addition of music from Peakes (a Leeds-based band with impassioned vocals from Molly Puckering) does enhance these scenes – though I do wonder whether a female solo artist (perhaps one who struggled to get into the industry, or is still struggling) may have been more fitting.
Unsung’s greatest feature is its strong performances. They remain sensitive to their characters’ eras and shine best when they share their stories. For instance, Sophia’s perseverance despite her fellow male students, who even protested at her attendance of a medical exam, or Andrea’s fight to have her working-class narratives taken seriously. I was left desiring more of these insights and about how these women succeeded – though perhaps the lack of information about them means there is little more available to share.
Still, it’s impossible not to come away feeling inspired. The Unsung Collective are fulfilling Ada’s concluding formula in the play – the addition of time to achievement enables rediscovery, reclamation and resurgence. The play is also an important reminder that barriers for women remain. At a time when the National Theatre’s new programme is written exclusively by men, it’s difficult to imagine Andrea in particular succeeding as a playwright any better today. It is the case that just as women must be the ones lead the restoration of female figures lost in history, they must also be the ones to pave change in the 21st-century.
Featured Image Credit: Unsung Collective.