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Joan Eardley: A Private View

The Old Ropeworks, Montrose

Reviewed by Jan Patience: The Herald Scotland


Three actors, a host of characters, and an old ropeworks in Montrose. An audience of around 50 souls have gathered on a wet Friday night to watch the life and loves of painter Joan Eardley unravel in front of our eyes in this intimate industrial space, with its exposed rafters and scuffed wooden floorboards.

The action, in Anna Carlisle’s play for Heroica Theatre Company, opens in a messy artist’s studio with a stooped small dark haired figure in a smock standing in front of an easel addressing the audience directly as we gather round.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asks one woman, before yelling to an absent assistant to put the kettle on.

With this direct one-to-one exchange, the audience is hooked and taken on a 75-minute promenade by a mesmerising Alexandra Mathie as Eardley. John Kielty plays several roles, including Eardley’s vulnerable friend, Angus Neil (a beautifully nuanced performance), Glasgow School of Art tutor, Hugh Adam Crawford, a London gallerist, and 12-year-old Andrew Samson, one of a large family from Townhead in Glasgow whom Eardley drew and painted.

Ashley Smith leaps chameleon-like from one role to the next with preternatural agility. One minute an eight-year-old with boundless energy, the next the coolly sophisticated Lady Audrey Walker, with whom Eardley appears more than a little infatuated. Other roles played by Smith include Eardley’s lifelong-friend from art school, Margot Sandeman, and Lil Neilson, Eardley’s lover in her final years before her early death aged 42 in 1963.

This touring production feels like it is finally breaking down the barriers to understanding the power behind Eardley’s paintings. By scraping away the layers of this complex and fiercely talented individual, the audience is given a fleeting glimpse into her inner life. It made me weep – and that was a good thing.


Joan Eardley: A Private View

SNG Modern 2 Performance

Reviewed by Irene Brown: The Edinburgh Guide


Art galleries are places of hush and reverence, like libraries used to be (remember that?). Yet, it’s not uncommon for theatrical or musical performances to take place within their hallowed walls from time to time. What is virtually unknown is for children to run through the rooms harem scarem while singing at the tops of their voices. That is exactly what disturbed the subdued chat of the audience waiting in the presence of Eduardo Paolozzi’s giant striding silver figure, Vulcan at the Scottish National Gallery, Modern 2.

Dressed as a pair of Glesga weans (short for wee anes, meaning little ones), John Kielty and Ashley Smith come diving in among the surprised group. They are singing the old Glasgow chant There is a Happy Land down at Duke Street Jail and the many versed party favourite, I Married a Wife, oh then, oh then as they lead the audience guests to Eardley’s studio where Joan herself, so warmly portrayed by Alexandra Mathie, welcomes her guests.

So starts the intimate promenade performance of this World Première from writer Anna Carlisle who has written seven plays on the theme ‘Maverick women unsung lives’ for West Yorkshire based Heroica Theatre Company. Joan Eardley: A Private View is her latest. Her beautiful sensitively written script that contains subtle Sapphic innuendo casts a kindly light on Eardley’s quietly rebellious life giving insight in to a modest, passionate and determined woman that allows us to see with new eyes the rather severe and slightly defensive image that most people are familiar with. The production admirably takes on the challenge of a fluid space and unpredictable audience movement, thanks to astute direction of Marilyn Imrie and choreography from Janice Parker and of course to the flexibility of the alert and able cast.

We are led to rooms representing either Townhead in Glasgow, where Eardley painted the children of the Samson family, or Catterline in Aberdeenshire where she created her marvellous land and seascapes. Here Mathie slashes the air with an invisible brush with credible gusto. Throughout, there is a strong message of what was the driving force behind the striking work of this brave and unconventional woman. To be ‘stopped dead by a meaning’; be transported by ‘little miracles’ and ‘split second light’, comes across as her raison d’être alongside her intense friendships with fellow artists, played impressively by Ashley Smith who along with John Kielty employ a variety of accents for their array of characters and who play and sing a selection of music of the time in snatches across the performance, setting both the period and mood.

Eardley lived over half her life in Sussex, England before settling with her family outside Glasgow in the relatively affluent district of Bearsden but was played with a Scottish accent. Never having heard Eardley’s voice, I don’t know if that is accurate or a director’s choice. Either way, it indicates a love of the artist’s adopted country of Scotland.

This highly engaging and revealing private view merits being made very public.


Joan Eardley: A Private View

Review by Paul F Cockburn: Broadway Baby


The London-born artist Joan Eardley, who settled in Scotland to study and whose artistic career was cut short when she died—aged 42—in 1963, is best known for two very different subjects of her painting: the extraordinarily candid—albeit, at times cartoonish—portraits of the “weans” (young children) in the long-since demolished Townhead area of Glasgow, and the landscapes and seascapes from the small fishing village of Catterline, just south of Aberdeen.

Although critically acclaimed during her lifetime, it’s fair to say that Eardley herself would probably be surprised by the continued attention paid to her work; public interest in a recent exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art was such that opening hours and dates had to be extended. Not only that, but the exhibition also provided a “hook” to hang this new play from Heroica Theatre Company, celebrating Eardley’s life and work: a play that will, for the most part, be performed “promenade-style” in selected art galleries around Scotland, including the venue of the exhibition, “Modern Two”.

However, with no two venues being the same—either in size, style or layout—there seems little point in focusing particularly on the promenade aspects of the production; not least because, on the evening of this review, the show had settled briefly in the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre within the bowels of the National Gallery of Scotland in the heart of Edinburgh—as near a traditional seated venue as you can get without being a theatre. So instead of the audience following the cast around, the cast ran around the audience, not least as happy-go-lucky kids singing naughty songs.

Joan Eardley: A Private View is the latest of seven plays written by Anna Carlisle for Heroica Theatre Company, supporting the company’s goal to celebrate the lives of “maverick and unsung women”. Admittedly, the extent to which Eardley herself fits this bill is open to debate; she’s hardly “unsung”, while the only obvious “maverick” aspect of her life would be her sexuality, although the word “lesbian” is used only once, and in relation to her aunt. The title remains apt, however; you leave this production with a real sense of having met the woman, and glimpsing her life and soul.

This is thanks to Carlisle’s restrained script and a nuanced performance by Alexandra Mathie; thanks to both we experience the modest yet passionate woman whose passion for painting was to “capture the moment of ecstasy”. Mathie is ably supported by John Kielty and Ashley Smith, who between them play the small group of life-long friends. The result is undoubtedly one private viewing which fully deserves to receive as wide a public audience as possible.


Joan Eardley: A Private View

Reviewed by Sarah McIntosh: The Wee Review


The unique focus of Pennines-based Heroica Theatre Company is shining a spotlight on the lives of great British women who have been overlooked by historians. Working with site-specific, promenade performances, they bring to life the unseen and forgotten. Previous productions have uncovered the stories of such women as Lady Anne Clifford’s struggle for her inheritance, Elizabeth Blackwell’s scandalous and brilliant adventures, and now, the 20th century artist Joan Eardley (RSA), whose exhibition, A Sense of Place, is on at Modern Two (National Galleries Scotland). The play, A Private View, developed in conjunction with Stellar Quines and National Galleries Scotland, is conducted between three of the rooms featuring her work, with few props, and covers her adult life moving between Glasgow and the coastal village of Catterline, south of Aberdeen.

The drama opens with Eardley (played with a compelling, edgy energy by Alexandra Mathie) establishing her feelings of low self-esteem (she endured bouts of depression throughout her life) bolstered by her friend, fellow Glasgow School of Art painter, Margot Sandeman (played by Ashley Smith). Eardley is presented as the point around which other talents orbit; indeed, there formed a small school around her work in Catterline, the legacy of which continues.

Eardley’s studies of the people of Townhead – a run-down part of Glasgow which to this day suffers poverty – particularly the children, are ruddy and modern, though they have the intimate feel of old masters. They differ wildly to the landscapes and seascapes she painted around Catterline. The pictures themselves are more expansive and this reflects the drama, which follows Eardley’s love of the tiny village and the way the light and the sea were constantly changing. It is a surprise when the audience turns from the tumultuous seas to the ghost-like nets and vibrant sunset which form the backdrop to the news of Eardley’s cancer. The supporting cast (Smith and John Kielty) switch between characters with admirable dexterity and make the piece feel more populated than it is. Eardley remains the lone figure at the centre and the final scene is humbling and profoundly moving.

The use of music and song woven through the play brings a lightness to the piece and help define the scenes; the hammered dulcimer child-like yet haunting. Director Marilyn Imrie deftly handles Anna Carlisle’s immersive script and the audience tiptoes between scenes as if directed too; we are quite literally following the story. Eardley’s soliloquy on Catterline is transfixing, her words as sumptuous as anything penned by Dylan Thomas. To learn about this artist in such a way as to feel connected to her muse and to have a glimmer of understanding of her life seems a genuinely inspired way to view art. The only fault (and it may only be with this particular venue) was that it would have been preferable to have been allowed some time after the performance to absorb and digest the brilliance and view the pictures quietly in respect of the life cut short. Somehow seeing pictures after, in print and online, seem flat and dulled.

Joan Eardley: A Private View is like one of Eardley’s own paintings, richly-textured, personal and intimate without a trace of pity or apology; not just a compelling drama, it’s a lesson in the appreciation of life, nature and humanity.



Public reading of the developing script of Joan Eardley: A Private View, Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, National Gallery of Scotland, May 14, 2016:

Review by FLWMag, entitled ‘Stopped dead by memory’:

“Our friendship’s in our bones, like the Glasgow damp.” JE at work

Story is what binds us. It is the arc of life, of entropy; we all know we are facing the inevitable but the time we have until then is our own to create whatever we make of it.

Anna Carlisle, writer of Joan Eardley: A Private View, has taken the skeleton of research into the known, of what we think we understand about artist Joan Eardley, then closed all the books to let the creativity, the fiction of it, take over. She’s explored the space between the art and the person; it was refreshing to see lesbian relationships in context, not as titillation for the masses. It was refreshing to see a three dimensional female character – Eardley’s difficulties with others, her ‘mannish’, pragmatic exterior belying the passionate artist desperate to communicate and capture change as well as live with it.

This play takes Eardley’s life and art and refines, reduces; it “captures the milliseconds” and all that Eardley was trying to achieve.

It’s about breaking down the barriers within yourself, getting over the “vulgar idea of Godliness” that is described as a particularly Scottish trait and, interestingly, getting beyond the binary:

“There’s no good, no bad, no yes or no” says Angus, one of Joan’s friends. That’s where the art is, in that space that’s left: beyond judgement, beyond the struggle to not let relationships interfere with artistic process, beyond who we are ‘supposed’ to be.

If art is subtraction, this play is art. The sparseness of its detail moves the play along swiftly, hitting the right notes of a life to allow you to see Joan in the spaces between. Scenes, characters, her art beaming down from the digital cyclorama – she is between these things, between these carefully chosen moments.

Knowing what you can’t do is useful, because it lets you know what you can do; Joan created “works of real power”, despite the fact that she felt they were received as though “oo er, it’s by a girl”.

The play is flashback anchored by a core moment of remembrance. The actors are incredibly lithe and generous – this ‘reading’ is better than a number of full-blown productions I’ve attended (I started out life as a stage manager, so that number is large).

I was truly mesmerised by the performances of Alexandra Mathie and Louise Ludgate; to discover they had only been rehearsing for two days was a revelation. Simon Donaldson also turned in a solid performance as a wide variety of characters and his dexterity at transformation added a number of vital notes to the play.

The script itself is joy to a writer – Hemingway was mentioned and that hardly came as a surprise. The writing is tight, honed, impactful and I now need to find out what else Anna Carlisle has written because, like Joan Eardley, I am new to the work and it has sparked the hunger that comes from finding something you didn’t know you loved.

And I think that’s the success of this venture. It does indeed “paint the changes” because they’re the interesting parts. It also brings to an audience who may be completely unaware of Eardley’s work the raw beauty of it.

The artefact of this play truly surpassed my expectations; it’s a brilliantly creative way to bring art to an audience, to bring it alive and to make it human. To do that, to create that – that is art.

Joan may have felt that she “spent [her] life giving the wrong impression” but the impact she has had on this audience – and no doubt will have on audiences up and down the country – will be lasting. And the reason will be obvious.

The play is going to do what art should: it inspires.


Inchmarlo Gardens, Banchory, Kincardineshire, July 31 2012

4 stars ****


FOR YEARS, shoestring companies like Chapterhouse, Illyria and Heartbreak have been exploring the market for outdoor summer theatre at stately homes and gardens around Britain; and now, Scotland’s own arts funding agency weighs into the business, celebrating the Year Of Creative Scotland by inviting Square Peg Productions of Yorkshire to work with Scotland’s Stellar Quines on a new show designed to tour around properties supported by Scotland’s Gardens.

Square Peg’s work focusses on “unsung northern heroines”; and in this 85-minute show, which opened at the glorious Inchmarlo Gardens on Deeside before a tour which will take it from Blairgowrie to Peebles, their in-house writer Anna Carlisle tells the story of an unsung Scottish heroine in the shape of Elizabeth Blackwell, illustrator and compiler of the greatest reference-book on herbal medicines ever published in 18th century England. Blackwell was an Aberdeen girl who, in her teens, eloped to London with her tearaway cousin Alexander. Alexander soon ended up in debtor’s prison; and the crisis compelled the clever, strong-minded and talented Elizabeth to mend her fortunes by seeking the support of Sir Hans Sloane, patron of the great Chelsea Physic Garden, and beginning to create her magnificent book.

Rushing, arguing, kissing and debating around the glorious woodlands and flower-gardens of Inchmarlo, Irene Allan and Kenny Blyth – with director Wendy Seager – make a fine, tightly-focussed job of conjuring up the spirits of Elizabeth, Alexander and Sloane, despite torrential rain-showers that compel frequent retreats to a small, open-ended marquee. And although the audience for the performance I saw was tiny, they seemed hugely appreciative; both of the straightforward, vigorous feminism of Carlisle’s script, and of Irene Allan’s heartfelt performance as Elizabeth, a woman burdened by am increasingly hopeless husband, but determined, in the end, to save her own life.



Square Chapel, Halifax and Halifax Minster, August 2010


Anna Carlisle’s ‘Woven in the Fabric’ may be jam-packed with well-researched facts but it is no dull history lesson. You’ll be engrossed and delighted and moved and inspired by a fascinating script and three delicious performances, all in the heart of down-town Halifax.

The play takes its audience on a leisurely stroll from Square Chapel to Halifax Minster through three centuries of local history (with lots of chances to sit down). We follow Crystal, a modern woman, refereeing ghostly but heartfelt discussions between Martha Crossley, hard-working matriarch of the seven-generation carpet dynasty at Dean Clough, and Lavena Saltonstall, spirited young suffragette from Hebden Bridge.

The three actresses – Olwen May, Shenagh Govan and Emma Kearney – give sparkling, intelligent performances. Their interaction with each other and the audience is a delight.

What’s so enthralling is that the dedication of our historic sisters Martha and Lavena (born a hundred years apart and more than a hundred years ago) so colour our present experience: the ongoing struggles for workers’ rights and women’s equality in hard economic times matched with the equally important job of raising good children.

But the true heroine of the piece is Halifax itself: a town built on benevolence and radical ideas, poverty and hard labour: a physical environment that constantly reflects change in fortune and direction.

Review: Kerry McQuade, Halifax Courier and Hebden Bridge Times

Public feedback:

‘It really made people from Halifax feel proud.’
‘A delight: brought local history to life in a realistic and poignant way.’
‘Lovely production. I felt part of the play, close to the actresses.’
‘Thought it was so good we would have sat and watched it in the rain!’



Swarthmoor Hall Cumbria, August 2008


Hebden Bridge’s Square Peg Productions kicked off their latest masterpiece at Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston in the South Lakes.

Alexandra Mathie brought to life the tale of the amazing life of Margaret Fell – 1614-1702. This mother of nine was the one of the leading lights in early days of the Quakers.

Wife of Judge Thomas Fell – played by Robert Garrett – Margaret and Thomas continued to ‘receive open minds under this roof’ through the most turbulent time in English history – through and after the Civil War.

One of these itinerant rabble-rousing preachers was George Fox (also beautifully played by Rob Garrett) who convinced Margaret and her household to become Quakers. These early Quakers most radically at the time rejected the need for ministers, saw all men and women as equals, refused to doff their hats to ‘superiors’, or pay tithes to the church (which he called the ‘steeple house’) and regularly challenged ministers in them. This led to thousands of these dissenting early Quakers being regularly thrown into jail houses, as happened to both Fox and Margaret Fell, who married Fox 11 years after her husband’s death.

Anna Carlisle has knitted together very complex material into a moving and beautifully acted play that takes the audience through the orchard, grounds and very room where the early Quakers met at Swarthmoor Hall. The opening day, Friday 15th August was blessed with the best weather seen for days, if not weeks.

Review: Geoff Tansey



Brougham Castle Penrith, August 2005


IF ONLY English history lessons at school had been as interesting as last Sunday’s performance of An Owl in the Desert, a celebration of the life of Lady

Anne Clifford (1590-1676).

Through her restoration of Brougham, Appleby, Brough, Pendragon and Skipton castles and several churches, and the building of almshouses and hospitals, Anne Clifford left an indelible mark on our county.

As a woman she struggled all her life to secure her inheritance – against a spendthrift first husband who contrived with James I to steal her beloved northern estates from her, an ‘irascible clot’ of a second husband, the deaths of four children, the English Civil War, smallpox and more. She bided her time (like a “songbird waiting for morning”, or “an owl in the desert”) and finally at the age of 60 her way was clear.

Amazingly, this expansive, rich story was brought to life by only two actors, Alexandra Mathie and Robert Garrett. They played their parts with huge empathy and good humour.

It’s an engaging story told in a beautifully simple, accessible and sympathetic way. We are all heirs to Anne’s legacy. Her castles are there for our enjoyment and we should know, love and respect what she achieved.

Hopefully, An Owl in the Desert will become an annual event.

Review: Kate Rees, The Cumberland News

Public feedback:

‘Superb production, brilliantly acted and making our visit to the castle very special and meaningful. Both children were captivated.’
‘Brilliant acting, beautifully written, moving.’
‘Came to see it last year. Brilliant. Gives the castle a ‘lived-in’ feeling. Congratulations.’
‘…made our annual membership of English Heritage justified by this one visit alone.’