≡ Menu



Public script reading, Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, National Gallery of Scotland, May 14, 2016


“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.’