Aug 25 2021 | By More

★★★☆☆      Revealing reminder

Sound Stage (Lyceum/Pitlochry Festival Theatre online): Fri 27 – Sun 29 Aug 2021
Review by Hugh Simpson

The conflicting demands of professional ambition and personal happiness are brought into stark focus in Sophia by Frances Poet.

The latest Soundstage production, from the Lyceum and Pitlochry Festival Theatre, is the story of an under-celebrated Edinburgh pioneer. Sophia Jex-Blake was the driving force behind the ‘Edinburgh Seven’, the first female students to matriculate at a British university in 1869.

The cast of Sophia

The familiar Edinburgh desire to celebrate itself regardless of any fidelity to the truth has tended to obscure the fact that it was subsequently decided that they should never have been admitted, and they were only given their degrees in 2019. This was a little late to be of much use, and Jex-Blake was forced to continue her studies in Switzerland and Ireland, setting up in Bruntsfield as the first woman to practise medicine in Scotland.

Her story is still too little known and demands retelling. Poet’s script does not shy away from Jex-Blake’s necessarily confrontational nature, and seeks to combine her professional and personal stories.

The balance between these is not always easy, and there are other problems on display that often affect historical dramas. Some of the characters talk in that overly exact, almost prissy way that is so often used to symbolise ‘the past’, others adopt a more neutral, timeless style, while some are much more modern, complete with suspiciously recent vocabulary.

much to enjoy

On stage, this approach can be energising, even exhilarating; in an audio drama, where the creation of a cohesive soundworld is much more important, it is more dangerous.

There is much to enjoy in the various performances, however, with Madeleine Worrall’s flinty energy giving Sophia herself a commendable vigour and resolve. Few do focused anger as well as Paul Higgins, and there is accordingly a crackling, spiteful chill to his early scenes with Sophia, in his role as Dr Christison, the President of the College of Surgeons whose opposition to female doctors is absolute.

There is such an energy to these scenes that it is almost a pity that the characters do not face off more later on. Instead, there is a more private feel to much of what follows, with most of the struggles the Edinburgh Seven faced being reported on rather than experienced, and as much prominence being given to the familiar expectations of women to subjugate their professional ambitions to family life.

It has long been suggested that Jex-Blake’s biographer Margaret Todd was also her life partner, and much of the framing device of the play explores why Todd effectively wrote herself (and Ursula DuPre, who had previously been in a relationship with Jex-Blake) out of the story.

the product of much thought

These more personal stories are well told, with Fletcher Mathers (Todd) and Natalie Grady (DuPre) supplying finely judged performances. There is also strong support from Maryam Hamidi, Clare Perkins and Muireann Kelly as three of the Seven, Robin Laing in a dual role and Elizabeth Poet as a young symbol of the influence Jex-Blake was to have on the future.

As in all of the Soundstage offerings, the direction (by Janys Chambers) is wonderfully crisp. Clearly the product of much thought, it ends up seeming effortless. Nicolette Macleod’s atmospheric music, Paul Cargill’s clever sound design and Sara Mattinson’s flawless sound recording add up to another meticulously achieved production.

Running time: one hour 45 minutes (including interval)
Royal Lyceum/ Pitlochry Festival Theatre: online
Friday 27 – Sunday 29 August 2021.
Evenings Fri/Sat: 7.30 pm; Sun Matinee: 4.30 pm (Virtual bar opens 30mins before start time).

Information and tickets


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.