Elizabeth Southerden Thompson was a name unknown to me until I watched Modest, at Hull Truck Theatre, on Thursday evening.
The year is 1874, and budding artist Elizabeth (Emer Dineen), dares to not only paint a portrait of fighting Crimean War soldiers (a very unladylike act at the time), but also to enter it into the Royal Academy’s public art exhibition at a time when women were neither seen, nor heard.
Titled The Roll Call, it is generally assumed the scene represented the aftermath of the Battle of Inkerman; but that fact wasn’t the mean reason the members of the Academy were against accepting it. They just couldn’t get it into their top-hatted heads that a woman could envisage such a barbaric scene when she should be at home doing needlepoint and sniffing her pomander.
The men agree to accept Elizabeth’s painting only so they could be seen as liberal; hanging it in a prominent position in Gallery 2.
To their dismay, the public love the painting and, encouraged by the attention, the next year, Elizabeth enters her oil painting, The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras – another war-time image.
This was purposefully hung in the darkened Lecture Room, in the hopes it would discourage the artist, who definitely thought highly of herself throughout her life. The show’s title, Modest, certainly is a misnomer where Elizabeth is concerned, although she does try to be in quite amusing scenes, in the hope of getting her own way,
Fast forward five years and Elizabeth, now Lady Butler, has ignored the Academy, on the advice of her sister, wannabe Poet Laureate, Alice (Fizz Sinclair), but learns Academy member Millais (Jacqui Bardelang), is putting her name forward to be elected as an associate member.
This energetic production doesn’t spare us Elizabeth’s frustration at not being taken seriously as an artist, just because she is female.
Nor her sister’s frustration at never attaining the dizzy heights of becoming the first female Poet Laureate; plus the fact Elizabeth wouldn’t agree to use her initial success to empower other, less talented women.
Three other cast members brought the artist’s story to life – LJ Parkinson, Isabel Adomakoh Young and Libra Teejay; most in multiple roles.
On a very sparse stage setting which included two sets of green steps and what looked like a large shower cubicle, all on a jazzily-coloured floor, there really was no need for anything else; the shenanigans of this active bunch was enough.
The stage lighting was nothing spectacular but, again, it didn’t need to be.
Costume changes were mostly rushed and comical at times; but it mattered not a jot. And all voices were loud and clear – and tuneful when singing. The F word gets a fair airing, too – definitely un-1870s ladylike!
Modest is presented in collaboration with Milk, a company which aims to improve the lives of trans and queer people; making them valued, respected and fulfilled. Amen to that.
I didn’t particularly enjoy Modest, but I can’t fault the energy and talents of the six who graced the stage on the night.
Running until Saturday, May 27th, 2023; 7.30pm nightly with 2pm matinee on the 27th. Tickets cost from £10. Call (01482) 323638 or visit www.hulltruck.co.uk
Reviewer: Jackie Foottit
Reviewed: 25th May 2023
North West End UK Rating: