Written by Matthew Knights
Directed by Emma Lynne Harley
Fife’s best-kept secret, and no it isn’t The Secret Bunker – from Lochgelly to Lords (House of), Jennie Lee was a working-class girl from Fife, best known for working her way through the Labour party into becoming the first Minister for the Arts, and eventual co-founder of the Open University. Her name isn’t synonymous with as many as we would like, but her dedication and hard work set a precedent which enabled those who sought a career in the industry a starting place, now if only this sentiment was echoed by the current holders of her position…
Knights Theatre’s upcoming tribute to Lee focuses on her life in broader strokes than solely her political achievements, examining her early intentions and reflecting on how Lee herself would feel looking back on it all. Set in a fictitious museum, cared for by curator George Docherty, the achievements and mementoes of Lee are in good care if a tad dusty. As the cabinets open, so too do the chapters of Lee’s life as her political self and younger self emerge to converse with Docherty and lock horns over their eventual path.
Miraculously, not only are Matthew Knight and Emma Lynne Harley emulating the characteristics of Jennie Lee through the story and direction of the cast, but the team has somehow brought the woman herself into their production through Trish Mullin, who plays Jennie Lee as she is in her political role and duties. The unfaltering core in Mullin’s performance sells any line, regardless of tone or humour, offering a steady glimpse of the potential the production has. There is a control which defies any rehearsal concerns, and Mullin allows for quivers and breaks in the performance conceding an authentic range of emotions.
Equally, George Docherty’s take on the curator morphs into character performances of ladies and gentlemen across Jennie Lee’s life, reinforcing her relationships with the likes of Harold Wilson as well as playing into the production’s humour. There is tenderness too in the primary role as the curator, a custodian of time not seeking glory but the opportunity to share an unsung story that we all in the industry should know.
And perhaps this is why the rehearsed reading deconstructs the notion of the stage so valiantly. If one were to close their eyes or look away from the screen – there would be little to suggest this isn’t taking place on the stage. There’s such evident adoration for their craft, for the task at hand, that within Knight’s writing and Harley’s narration of stage cues that the reading feels akin to a run-through, a behind the scenes peek.
There are notable dips, where Younger Jennie’s delivery is stilted, which is more an issue in scripting than performance, where detail is padded out to create a point of tension between the different mindsets of the younger and older Lee. Here’s the only real rub, where Mullin’s protestations of not becoming a champagne socialist come across as genuine, Hana MacKenzie’s difficulties in communicating the younger Lee’s disappointment comes over as more hollow with the body of exposition required to get Knight’s characterisation across.
And whilst there are bumps where stage directions feel overly complex or exist to pad, one has to remember that in a physical performance these would be the first to change. For a reading, there’s oodles of research filtering into the show, weaving tiny snippets of Lee’s life and accomplishments. Better yet, the foundations are sturdy, with keen direction it’s evident where moments of movement would occur to infuse energy into the production. So despite not having a stage to stride onto, there are little concerns Jennie Lee wouldn’t find her footing.
A collaborative effort from tremendous creators, Knights Theatre’s Jennie Lee: Tomorrow is a New Day is supported by The Open University, Creative Scotland and On Fife – stamping an approval from Jennie Lee’s home county. As a rehearsed reading, the opportunity to gain an insight into the up-coming production settles any concerns one would raise, as Knight’s resolute script toys with history in a way that serves as a fitting tribute, as well as a stark reminder of the arts steadfast position – not solely for culture, but as a focus, honing issues to a point. Something Jennie Lee herself recognised, and in championing the value of the industry, there are few more fitting ways than Tomorrow is a New Day.
Further information and ways to support the team can be found on Knights Theatre’s website & social medias.