Thursday, 13 November 2014

Your Loving Brother Albert & Nellie - A Review

One of the hidden gems of Milton Keynes and the surrounding area is the vibrant local theatre scene. Last night we went to see the Pepper's Ghost Theatre Company production of Your Loving Brother Albert and Nellie at the Radcliffe School Theatre in Wolverton. The two plays, directed by Rosemary Hill, are both set in the Edwardian era and based in Wolverton, one of the small towns on the edge of modern Milton Keynes.

Nellie is a short musical play devised by Roy Nevitt and Roger Kitchen. It is based upon the diaries of Nellie Abbey nee Smith from 1901-1920. It is a deceptively gentle play which follows the early life of Nellie (Erinne Kate Barr) and her friends as they enter adulthood and become what today would be referred to as community organisers. It is a story not only of friendship but also of struggle. Nellie and her friends work in The Sewing Room, under the watchful eye of "The Dragon" (Joc Rose). As they become aware of the dreadful conditions they are working under they begin to campaign for what today would be regarded as basic working conditions.

Leisure is also a central part of the plot and the problems faced for young women like Nellie and her friends Effie (Georgia Tillery) and Ethel (Ciara Price) by bicycles, due to the restrictions placed upon them by the clothing of the era, are also highlighted.

A final subtle theme bought out in the play is the way in which young women emigrated to countries like Canada to marry. As Nellie's best friend Effie leaves to marry it is not clear if this is to somebody she knew or whether her family has arranged it. The ambiguity is a device this play uses to great effect.

The production was extremely well cast and their singing was excellent. Erienne Kate Barr gave a strong performance as did the other cast members but the most striking performance came from Georgia Tillery who was also in Your Loving Brother Albert. She has a strong stage presence and somewhat dominated the stage in Nellie.

The second of these community plays was Your Loving Brother Albert also devised by Roy Nevitt which was first performed in the Stantonbury Drama Studio in 1980. The play follows the story of a young man who would be what a recent TV documentary described as one of the Teenage Tommies. Albert French (Charlie Woolford) joined the Army in 1915 and died in the trenches a week before his seventeenth birthday. He is one of those remembered on the war memorial in the Anglican church in Wolverton, a short walk from where the play was being performed. The play is derived from the letters sent home by Private French to his sister, May (Georgia Tillery), which can be read on the MK Heritage website.

The play is also a musical but rather than the cast singing the music came from the band who were Shahnaz Hussain, Brad Bradstock and Dave Crawford. The folk songs which helped tell the story were performed to the same high standard as I have heard from any act at Cambridge Folk Festival or The Stables.

I would challenge anybody to watch Your Loving Brother Albert and not be moved. Seeing a young man in uniform tell the story of what began as an adventure and ended as a tragedy is poignant enough. However, when it is acted as well as Charlie Woolford did with the soundtrack accompanying it the events become even more moving and striking.

The set designed by Kevin Jenkins, which included photographs of the time projected into the background, also added to the gentle but moving atmosphere, making it feel far more like a real theatre than a school hall.

At the end of the production a poem was read which highlighted the way in which the official records had sought to cover up the fact Albert was underage. It also described the way in which historians were able to identify those men from the Wolverton Railway Works who had signed up....they were the ones who are logged as having "left without notice".

The two plays which are being put on as part of the Great War MK project are on at the Radcliffe School Theatre, Wolverton until Saturday 15th November, (when there is also a matinee performance).  If you get the chance to do go and see them because they give a deep and insightful glimpse into Edwardian Britain in this small corner of Buckinghamshire as well as an enjoyable evening out. Tickets are available online.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Feminism for All or Selling Out via Incorporation?

From the Premier Christianity magazine to Elle it seems that feminism is well and truly back on the agenda again. GQ has its own spin on it with a list of Britain's 100 Most Connected Women in the current issue which has a category within it "Campaigner and Change Agent" and unashamedly quotes Gloria Steinem.

The articles are interesting because apart from with Christianity magazine they sit amid the very adverts and photographs which theorists such as Mulvey argue reflect the male gaze. That is the adverts and articles around the Feminist focused adverts can be argued to sexualise women and portray them which reflects the way men want women to look. Page 59 of GQ has an erotic shot of a topless Emily Ratajkowski with the promise of exclusive bonus shots for users of ipad, iphone and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S. The advert for Miss Dior on the back of Elle is best described as sultry and seductive.  

The first question this raises in my mind is has the current wave of feminism been incorporated? By this I mean has a potentially counter cultural movement had the power removed from it and has it been made into a consumer product which is almost a parody of itself in the same way as Hebdidge argues happened to punk? Or as I saw one Tweeter put it, "has feminism become meaningless?"

Well, on one hand yes, I think there has been incorporation and there are problematic issues regarding some of the other content of some of these magazines which need to be raised and addressed. However, on another I think something more powerful is happening and that is I think the debate around feminism is being taken to a broader audience rather than expecting them to come to it, which let's face it they are unlikely to.

I want to briefly look at each of these three and see what we can learn from them.

Firstly, the November issue of Premier Christianity. The cover was divided into two reflecting the different models of womanhood which popular culture and conservative church culture promote with the heading of "What Women Want? From feminism to head coverings: challenging how society and the Church define gender roles" bridging the two.

The initial editorial welcomed us to their "female focus edition" before we were launched into an article giving the profiles of 5 women apparently in the running to be the first female bishop. Christian Feminist and popular social media user Hannah Mudge had an interesting article outlining how the media, society and church represent women and why she is a Christian Feminist. Within this article she makes the important point that "finding common ground across the theological divide is important, but so is building bridges with the secular women's movement."

Whilst being careful not to other the oppression of women the article on the Female Cost of War was one of the most powerful of the issue. The article on headcovering by Heather Tomlinson looked at both sides of the argument in a way which was fair and balanced.

Finally, in the Science in the Bible theologian David Instone-Brewer explored what the bible had to say on gender and transgender issues. On one hand this article, with its discussion of intersex issues, this was a useful article however, I believe to label it as an article on what the bible has to say on gender and trans issues was unhelpful. The I in LGBTQI is very definitely separate to the T and trans issues were not really touched upon at all. The article should have stated clearly it was looking at what it meant to be Intersex not at wider gender and trans issues.

Whilst I applaud what was being done in this issue it highlighted a problem which the December edition of Elle also reflects, that feminism and gender issues are something which should be othered and labelled in a way which commodifies the issue.

The Elle magazine article focused on the results of a survey they had commissioned and an interview with Emma Watson. It also had the photos of various men in "This is What a Feminist Looks Like T-shirts", something which the Daily Mail turned into a storm when they claimed the t-shirts were unethically made. The Fawcett Society in turn published a statement refuting the Daily Mail allegations.

The article by Janice Turner with the survey results was interesting because it outlined how the key problem which we face is apathy and misunderstanding. This is what allows inequality to fester and continue in our society unchallenged by most. It is also what allows feminism to be a term which continues to be viewed negatively and as extreme by many. Yet, Elle was also the most heterosexist of the three in many ways and that was something I found problematic. Whilst Diva may be the magazine of choice for many LGBTQI women, we do like magazines like Porter and Elle too and wish we would be reflected more within them.

Then we get to the November GQ list of influential women, similar in some ways to the Rainbow List of LGBT influencers in the Independent this Sunday in many ways. By that I mean both are focusing on who they see as the key movers and shakers who are influencing society and thought. Within the GQ list it was encouraging to see Rev Lucy Winkett named, somebody also in the Christianity list of possible future bishops.

There were women in the list who can definitely be described as feminist such as Stella Creasy MP and Caitlin Moran but many would probably not be so readily labelled. The list contained the straight, the gay and the single. One notable omission was Paris Lees, number two in the Rainbow List and a highly influential woman. Her omission showed that it was a cis list and we there is still some distance to go before all women are included in such polls.

Yet, it was an informative and useful list. Combining the information about the 100 women in the GQ list with the survey data in Elle and the information in Christianity gave an informative an interesting snapshot of where Feminism is today and to an extent some of the issues women today face. Looking at the three magazines aimed at their differing readerships, one mixed gender, one a female audience and one a male audience also shows the complexity of the Feminist movement today and its relationship with the media and potential allies who may not seem natural for those who might more naturally and easily describe themselves as feminists.