Harriet Martineau Dreams of Dancing at Live Theatre, Newcastle – ‘witty social commentary’
Olivier award-winning writer Shelagh Stephenson’s new play about Harriet Martineau is a witty insight into the life of a woman who was an outsider in Victorian England. Martineau did not conform to the constraints of society and was a radical thinker, feminist, writer and sociologist.
The play is set in 1844 in the Tynemouth guest house in which Martineau recuperated from illness for five years. Alison Ashton’s set reflects the seaside location: drapes are tied back with rope, the bay window curves dramatically outward like a ship’s bow and even the light fixture resembles the helm. Lizzy McInnerny’s Harriet spends her time looking outside: the set serves as a reminder of the freedom she is missing.
McInnerny portrays her character as abrupt and initially difficult to warm to. Harriet gains respect as she questions why it’s okay to treat women as the weaker sex. But she feels a dichotomy in her need to be weak when it suits her. She’s playing to some of those constraints of Victorian society she so detests.
Impie Haddock is a visitor in awe of the famous Harriet. Her eccentricity gives her a kind of immunity to the expected behaviour of the middle classes. Amy McAllister delivers Impie’s stories with the right mix of clarity and crazy, and provides welcome comic relief.
Deka Walmsley’s misogynistic and racist Robbie rocks up to demean the women by ignoring them, yet simultaneously takes their words as his own. The echoing of their words is in part funny but also frustrating to watch. Robbie is an unappealing character, but Walmsley keeps us on side with punchy delivery.
There are parallels with modern society and Stephenson makes good use of Harriet’s radical thinking to highlight how far we’ve come in terms of women’s rights. These are Harriet’s dreams – and she’s dreaming of a better world for us all.