Review: Unsung, King's Head Theatre

History is haunted by the silent voices of unsung women, their voices, stories and achievements overlooked due to the frustratingly simple yet damning fact of their gender. This hour-long piece staged at the King’s Head Theatre as part of a UK-wide tour sets out to champion the stories of four underrepresented women, whose achievements are not in any way equalled in their modern-day recognition.

From established TV writer Lisa Holdsworth, in collaboration with new theatre company Unsung Collective and supported by Arts Council England, Unsung is a punchy, unconventional call-to-arms that embodies the same spirit as Shakespeare’s Globe’s recent runaway success Emilia.

Four women in action-ready boiler suits sit or pace onstage. They are mathematician Ada Lovelace (Olivia Race), without whom we may not have had the computer; Sophia Jex-Baxter (Kirsty Pennycook), an early campaigner and medical student amongst the first to sit medical exams at Edinburgh university; Lilian Bader (Riana Duce), the first black woman to join the RAF; and Andrea Dunbar (Claire-Marie Seddon), working class teenaged mother and victim of domestic abuse – and also the youngest playwright to have her work performed at the Royal Court Theatre.

Unsung seeks to both investigate this staggering injustice and reverse it slightly, in celebrating these women’s achievements and telling their stories here and now. Their efforts are valiant and the play has the makings of a piece that could be every bit as stirring as Emilia, if given the space and nourishment to develop.

Granted, the piece is only an hour long, which leaves hardly enough time to fully explore the backstories of each of the women gathered here. Several facets – such as how or why these women are gathered here in this bizarre submarine/laboratory outside of any linear time – go unexplained. I would have liked to have seen and heard more of the biographies of each of the women’s individual lives as well as heard more about why, of all the underappreciated women in history, these seemingly otherwise unlinked four have been collected for this case study.

Nevertheless, the personalities of each of the four shine through in the warm portrayals of these talented actresses. Each is distinct, sensitive to their era but with just the right amount of poetic license. Lovelace barely contains her fury at having spent the last two centuries referenced mostly in relation to her father (Lord Byron). Bader is dorky, cheery and seems to embody the roll-your-sleeves-up World War II attitude. Blake displays a stern Victorian confidence and Dunbar a sharp-edged grit. Likewise, Holdsworth’s honed ear for dialogue is evident, and the voices she gives her characters are authentic – especially that of fellow Yorkshire-woman, Dunbar.

The frequent frenetic and evocative music sequences – scored jarringly by PEAKES – seem slightly cramped. These extended sequences at times seem to drown out the women’s stories themselves. That said, they do acutely evoke, better than words can, the repetitive nature of the barriers and knockbacks faced by women for centuries and the doors slamming in faces that resound through the ages. And yet, the piece also is an act of acknowledgement, a gesture towards the rebalancing of the equation. It pays homage to the women who scratched their fingers bloody on those closed doors, to each generation breaking down barriers and making it, by process of abrasion, that little bit easier for those who come after.

Given just a little more time, space and grounding in its subject matter, this plucky show could realise its potential. It is a very good play with the guts of an outstanding one.

Unsung is touring until 27 April. For more information and tickets, see the Unsung Collective website.