5 April 2016
Unsung, the DaDaFest and Turf Love production, had its first run at Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre 9-12 March 2016. The play, written by John Graham Davies and James Quinn, features the life story of Edward Rushton, an important but largely forgotten figure in Liverpool’s history, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery and established the Royal School for the Blind. Review by Trish Wheatley.
Set in the later part of his life, the story unfolds across different timelines as old Rushton is haunted by powerful memories from his earlier life. This internal dialogue was illuminated for the audience through Kwamina, a slave he befriended but who sacrificed his life for Rushton in an incident at sea. Kwamina’s character is important in the telling of Rushton’s life, in representing the slaves and as a device to integrate access into the play, facilitating communication between the signing servant, Mossop, and the blind Rushton.
The cleverly designed set integrated visual imagery and captioning through projection onto the sails of the boat and allowed for switching between memory scenes on the slave ship and ‘present’ scenes in Rushton’s bookshop quite effectively. Both elements required some ironing out, with first night technical projection issues and unnecessary overuse of the steps on entering and exiting the stage to set the scene. Both elements could be improved to ease viewing and help the play flow.
There were some deft touches in the detail, such as the use of the black material over Rushton’s eye when being seen in public, as he is depicted in the Moses Haughton portrait featured in the appropriately large-print programme. The characterisation and mannerisms by Joe Shipman as young Rushton and John Wilson Godard as old Rushton were incredibly convincing and a joy to watch.
Several of the cast play multiple characters, which works well given the decision to depict the different facets of Rushton’s life and work. Rachel Austin as the forthright Reverend Dannet was particularly enjoyable and well-polished. However, her part as Rushton’s daughter worrying over his impending eye surgery felt superfluous; Rushton’s wife (Jane Hogarth) more than covered the role of concerned loved one.
The play chose to focus on Rushton as a disabled activist. However, there was a little too much attention given to the five eye surgeries he underwent in his lifetime; it was disappointing not see more of the story of how and why the Blind School came to be set up.
The script requires some prior knowledge of that period in history and the additional context in the programme certainly helps to assimilate the story after the event. Unsung provides an interesting take on disability, race, age, class and politics. It was clear from the performance and the programme that the cast, production team and director, Chuck Mike have developed a real passion for telling the story of this extraordinary man. Together they have created an ambitious piece of theatre that explores a complex set of narratives, whilst entertaining and leaving the audience with plenty to consider.
There were scenes that clearly resonated with contemporary politics, issues around privilege and attitudes towards disabled people, sometimes through humour, but often through an exasperating realisation that we fail to progress as quickly, or as far, as we might perceive.