First published in The Times, Wednesday November 23 2016
The life of Harriet Martineau is eventful enough to provide material for several plays. At her peak, in the mid-19th century, the prolific writer, social commentator and proto-feminist outsold Charles Dickens. Queen Victoria was such a fan that she invited Martineau to her coronation. Given that her own mother believed that her daughters should never be seen in public with pens in their hands, Martineau’s success as a writer is all the more remarkable.
In view of these achievements, it is perhaps surprising that Shelagh Stephenson, the playwright who wrote the acclaimed A Northern Odyssey for Live Theatre in 2010, should have chosen to dramatise a creatively fallow period in Martineau’s life. Stephenson’s play, which she co-directs with Max Roberts, concentrates on the period Martineau spent in Tynemouth while she endured an incapacitating bowel condition. Lizzy McInnerny, in the title role, spends much of the running time semi-recumbent on a chaise longue.
Pic: Keith Pattison
Although a little dramatically unfocused, and at times overburdened with painstaking exposition, Stephenson’s play is thick with incident and populated by engaging supporting characters. While the plot such as it is revolves around Martineau’s intervention in the plight of a young black girl, Beulah (Kate Okello), who has been dragged to the northeast against her will, there are entertaining nods to the pseudoscience popular at the time, including the phrenology practised by Beulah’s monstrous uncle, Robbie (Deka Walmsley).
Stephenson also engages wittily with Martineau’s qualified rejection of the constraints of domesticity, portraying her subject as at her sharpest while practising needlepoint. Though the writer’s friend, the eccentric artist Impie Haddock (Amy McAllister), has escaped domestic servitude thanks to her husband succumbing to a freak accident, the same freedoms can never be afforded to Jane (Laura Jane Matthewson), Martineau’s bright housekeeper.
The ensemble exhibits the required lightness of touch to keep the action in Roberts and Stephenson’s production sparking along. The addition of brief passages of movement, dramatising Martineau’s interior life and set to uplifting music by The Unthanks, the Tyneside folk band provides welcome respite from the claustrophobic single-room setting.