The Chelsea Belladonna
JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE CHELSEA BELLADONNA at Inchmarlo Gardens, Kincardineshire, for The Scotsman 31.7.12
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 Allen 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 – raising questions about how well the ground has been prepared for this tour – they seemed hugely appreciative; both of the straightforward, vigorous feminism of Carlisle’s script, and of Irene Allen’s heartfelt performance as Elizabeth, a woman burdened by am increasingly hopeless husband, but determined, in the end, to save her own life.