Theatre review: Modest

Our theatre reviewer, Sam Sims, shares his thoughts on Middle Child’s latest show, Modest.

It’s exciting to be reminded of what makes art – and all that it encompasses such a bloody thrill. With theatre, specifically, there’s the potential to really push the boat out, to do things that perhaps wouldn’t, say, work or translate well into film or TV. A political statement can be made using bonkers props, historical accuracy can be thrown into a blender and ripped apart, producing something else entirely – something colourful and unexpected. It’s exhilarating when you’re in such proximity to this.

Modest, which started its run at Hull Truck and is now touring the UK, is a co-production between Hull-based company Middle Child and Derby-based Milk Presents. Directed by Paul Smith and Luke Skilbeck, the show tells the true story of a pioneering megastar on the Victorian art scene, Elizabeth Thompson (Emer Dineen) who, though stunning London’s Royal Academy with her painting, ‘Roll Call’, must still fight to be taken seriously – well, as seriously as her sub-standard male counterparts.

Elizabeth’s story is a complex one that doesn’t necessarily have the ending you’re expecting and as a person she isn’t entirely likeable – for a woman she’s even less so. But this is part of what makes Modest and the journey it takes the audience on such a thrill. It’s a show about people who aren’t just good or bad – they’re something in between and surely, we can – or should – all relate to that. Ellen Brammar’s writing is incredibly adept at making the characters – especially the protagonist and her poet sister, Alice (Fizz Sinclair) – seem entirely human. It also reminds us of how quick we can be in judging a woman when she doesn’t behave in a way we’ve come to expect – modest, you might say.

As much as this show is about being a woman in a (shock horror) male dominated field and the despicable behaviour of men who make up for their lack of talent with their nepotistic ties, it is also about success and what it represents when you’re marginalised, as well as and emphatically, queerness.

Once Elizabeth enjoys success, she understandably wants to enjoy it for herself – that’s what men do after all, and yet her sister will not allow it. “The more you succeed, the more we all do,” she tells her. “Why must I shoulder all of you?” is the frustrated reply. Is Elizabeth selfish? Yes. Is she also incredibly relatable? Yes. As a marginalised person – something that, nearly 200 years later, is still apparent for women and others, Elizabeth does, arguably, have a responsibility to lift others up. Such statements make you want to slam your head into the seat in front but they also – and I speak from a personal place – fire you up to make change.

As a company that has celebrated queerness in all its joy and complicated messiness for over 10 years, Milk Presents have firmly put their stamp on Modest. A cast of non-cis performers, many of whom play their characters as drag kings, others, trans women playing trans women, should not be radical and especially in theatre, but it is. There are such fly-away comments as Alice asking her sister if her stubble is creeping in and the latter responding, “it doesn’t make you any less of a woman.” If anything, it’s the subtleness – of not making a ‘thing’ about being trans that is the most radical thing.

Though Modest is set in 1874 and the subsequent half a decade after, it feels constantly fresh and contemporary. Of course, this is intentional: Terry Herfield’s costume designs are wonderful in their juxtaposition – red platform boots under a ball gown, an Adidas top to paint in. Rachel Barnes and Eliyana Evans’ music work is also nothing short of sublime with particular highlights being Libra Teejay’s Queen Victoria getting down and dirty to Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ ‘Unholy’.

The cast are all incredibly talented. Emer Dineen and Fizz Sinclair boast real chemistry as sisters, with the latter impressing as both Alice and a misogynistic old man who bears more than a resemblance to Absolutely Fabulous’s Patsy. Another standout is Teejay as teenager, Bessie who goes from idolising Elizabeth to growing frustrated with her selfishness, and the unexpected total icon, Queen Victoria.

Back to the beginning: seeing a pair of green shower curtains (as brilliantly dreamt up by set designer, QianEr Jin) on stage should not, perhaps, be all that exciting a sight but sitting in Hull Truck’s main space waiting for the show to start, details like this only seem to add to the feeling of anticipation the audience has for what is to come. Because they’re not just shower curtains, these are representative of a show that seeks to subvert what is considered the norm, whether that’s in consideration of gender, sexuality, or historical context. Modest is never one thing and it is certainly radical in many ways. For that, it should be celebrated, and I desperately hope we see more shows like this one in Hull – especially by Middle Child, whose consistently great work has reached a pinnacle in teaming up here with Milk Presents.

[Sam Sims – Theatre reviewer]