'Modest' review – this cheer-worthy art herstory lesson mixes drag, music and revolutionary spirit

Read our three-star review of Modest, starring Emer Dineen, now in performances at the Kiln Theatre to 15 July.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Art history class was never like this! Ellen Brammar’s touring play Modest mixes drag, music and irrepressible high spirits to tell the story of Elizabeth Thompson (better known in aristocratic circles as Lady Butler), the British artist who made her name painting scenes of war. More significantly, she came within two votes of being the first female artist since its founding to be elected to the Royal Academy, the prestigious art institution in central London’s Piccadilly.

But rather than settle for a fusty history lesson, Brammar sets her non-binary cast loose on a play that has the feel of a rave. Time and again, the six performers break into song or dance or sometimes both, and the shower curtain and tiled flooring centre stage offers visual evidence that the show takes a freewheeling view of the past. There’s little formality on view here.

And so it is that we meet Emer Dineen’s none-too-modest Elizabeth, who is the first to agree when others call her “fabulous” and who boasts early on that “there is no talent like this talent of mine”. Thompson had a younger sister, the poet and essayist Alice Meynell. In Brammar’s version, this writer is a trans activist worried about stubble and given to joining her elder sibling in anthemic song about it being “our time, girl, it’s our time”.

All of the cast play multiple roles, with the exception of Dineen, who cuts an imposing presence and yet somehow manages to make her character’s narcissism palatable. After all, how else can you push back against the patriarchy without a determined belief in your own gifts? (The male establishment is represented by the artist John Everett Millais, who appears now and again to argue Thompson’s cause: Jacqui Bardelang approaches that role with vigour and panache.)

Amongst the others, Libra Teejay is especially good as a teenager, Bessie, who identifies as neither a boy nor a girl but, instead, as “an artist in the making” and who is dazzled by Thompson’s work. Were the two ever to meet, Bessie imagines – in the language of the play – that “oh friggedy farthing, I think I’d combust.” Teejay appears elsewhere as Queen Victoria, another admirer of Thompson who speaks the same colloquial, streetwise language – her royalty notwithstanding.

Co-directed by Luke Skilbeck and Paul Smith, the production began in May as the brainchild of a Hull-based company, Middle Child, that specialises in “gig theatre”. It’s heartening to see its message of empowerment taking to the road at a time of such significant pushback to some of the sentiments on view.

In context, you’re inclined to forgive a pedantic, repetitive second half that sees Thompson falling at the final hurdle, and I found myself wanting to know more about the real-life woman, who lived well into her 80s – a longevity not acknowledged here.

Still, there’s no denying that the play knows its audience and that its drag king-inflected playfulness is one way of putting across points of view that, in other hands, might seem merely a staged thesis. The climactic rallying cry prompts a cheer – and reminds us that the work of the revolutionary is never done.

Modest is at the Kiln Theatre through 15 July. Book Modest tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Modest (Photo by Tom Arran)

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