If you’ve never heard of Elizabeth Thompson, it’s yet more proof that we’ve failed to be taught about important women in the history of this country. The painter, and trailblazer, is the subject of Ellen Brammar’s Modest, a Middle Child production in collaboration with Milk Presents, which has already enjoyed a tour which began at Hull Truck Theatre, and now comes to London’s Kiln Theatre.
Thompson painted The Roll Call, which was accepted to the Royal Academy’s 1874 Summer Exhibition, earning a prestigious spot on the line in gallery two. Later purchased by Queen Victoria, the painting made Thompson an overnight celebrity and very nearly got her elected as the first female Royal Academician.
Modest does an excellent job of telling this story, in a rowdy, no holds barred portrayal. It could be likened to something like Six The Musical, in the way that it brings history to life with more than a touch of modernity, and it certainly has all the right ingredients to build a loyal fanbase akin to the Queendom.
Just as Elizabeth Thompson chose to paint war scenes instead of pretty flowers, this production has chosen to portray the character in a different light; this Elizabeth (Emer Dineen), unlike the title, is far from modest, coming across as selfish, arrogant and lacking empathy, especially when it comes to her sister, Alice (Fizz Sinclair). So, we’re left wondering who to root for, the men who tried to stand in her way? Of course not. The letter writing fan who feels let down? Probably not.
Despite the audience being left a bit in limbo on this aspect, directors Luke Skilbeck and Paul Smith keep the production feeling energetic and empowering throughout. All of the cast, with the exception of Dineen, multi-roll and sometimes at furious pace. It’s very well executed, and the audience are brought in on the joke on more than one occasion.
It’s not the only thing to raise a laugh, this is a genuinely funny piece of theatre and although it’s telling an important story, particularly how Thompson came to embody the hopes and dreams of women and non-binary people for over five years, it still manages to lean into outrageous comedy.
LJ Parkinson as RA One/Mary and Libra Teejay as Bessie/Queen Vic are the standout performers of the night, while Isabel Adomakoh Young demonstrates precision comic timing. Composer, Rachel Barnes brings us a dance beat vibe, which again gets the audience suitably pumped.
Taking inspiration from the Music Hall entertainment that would have been popular at the time, Modest, with its Drag King cast, succeeds in telling a second, and arguably just as important, story, and does much to promote representation on the stage. It also happens to be a whole lot of fun.