The Cotswold Players present The Amazing and Preposterous Constance Smedley by Frank Hatt at the Cotswold Playhouse, Stroud: March 18-21
- Credit: Archant
Katie Jarvis reviews Frank Hatt’s excellent play about a remarkable Minchinhampton resident who, even more remarkably, has almost been forgotten
Constance Smedley. Amazing! Preposterous!
So, look. Twenty-first century Minchinhampton has had its share of celebrities. There’s currently Dr Mark Porter (Amazing!) and Keith Allen (Preposterous?!). But back in the early 20th century, there was Constance Smedley, who was both. She moved to this little Cotswold market town fresh from setting up the International Lyceum Club for Women; married to a gay artist; unable, since the age of six, to walk without the aid of crutches.
There’s a photograph of her in the Cotswold Players programme, looking every inch the Edwardian lady. Topped by an extravagant hat, she leans on her soft, white hands, an amused stare aimed straight at the camera. Confidence lights this picture; determination focuses it. Her disability is out of the frame (literally and metaphorically: this is a head-and-shoulders shot); her husband’s sexual preferences are no reflection on her own desirability. Constance knows her worth; Constance knows that life is not about rejection or acceptance. Life is about choices.
She steps out of that photograph and onto the stage this week in the Cotswold Players’ production of The Amazing and Preposterous Constance Smedley, directed by Rob Penman, written by Frank Hatt. And what a production it is. Played by Sally-Anne Beer, this diminutive figure fills the stage, suddenly someone very real. Someone who, as she hobbles around, frequently collapsing with exhaustion, sets the world to rights: a celebrity in her own era. For Constance was an excellent artist, playwright, journalist, feminist, and author of novels and children’s books. Not only that, disgusted with the lack of facilities for the fairer sex, she founded the International Lyceum Club for Women, travelling over Europe to spread the network.
But what is superb about this play is the sheer reality of it: we can read about an astonishing character. We can drink in their celebrity achievements. But, when we know them as a person, we can also tell you how irritating they can be.
Adorable. A pain. Indomitable. Insufferable.
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The story behind the story is also a fascinating one. For playwright Frank Hatt, it began in January 2007, when a lady appeared out of nowhere with a collection of papers rescued from a builders’ bonfire in a barn being repaired.
“There were about a hundred letters, some newspaper cuttings, studio portrait photographs and a few bills and pieces of printed ephemera,” he recalls. “They related to the Smedley family, the earliest dating from 1908, the latest 1922. I discovered Constance Smedley and was enthralled.”
The play that resulted from this ‘find’ documents Constance’s life during that period, after which she moved to America to begin a whole new chapter. But what makes it especially mesmeric is the way Frank explores the interplay within the family. Her sister, Di (wonderfully, stuffily, played by Nicola Hurst), is a biochemist, a pioneer for women in science. Her brother, Billy (Alistair Anderson), is a ne’er-do-well who, according to a school report, ‘lacked moral fibre’. Both siblings balance a familial love for Constance with sheer, biting jealousy at the way her parents indulge her. Their sister is full of dotty schemes; “She always gets what she wants”; “She flits from one thing to another like a butterfly”. As to her useless legs, “She trades on that.”
“She will wear herself out!”
“No, she will get other people to wear themselves out.”
In 1909, Constance married gay artist Maxwell Armfield; together, they moved from London to Minchinhampton. Later, they lived in The Little House on Rodborough Common, where they stayed until the outbreak of the First World War. Throwing themselves into country life, they organised plays in Minchinhampton Market House; Constance wrote three novels (including Commoners’ Rights, about Minchinhampton Common, which was taken over by the National Trust during her time there); they opened a bookshop; and they were behind the spectacular Pageant of Progress in Stroud’s Fromehall Park in 1911, a vivid portrayal of her fervent belief that England itself - and her own life in particular - was changing, and for the better.
Her success nearly broke her. As one villager explains after the pageant, the locals just aren’t satisfied with it all ending there. “Now it’s over, they feel as flat as a pancake. They have the taste and they want more.” To satisfy their thirst – and in a neat round-circle – she helped form the Cotswold Players themselves.
Do go and see this remarkable story, brought to life by a director and cast whose strength pays tribute to Constance’s own. All excellent.
The irony within the script – and I’ve no idea whether or not its basis lies in truth – is a neat twist that might partly explain how, with the aid of her parents, Constance achieves what she does. I won’t give anything away; suffice to say that the feminism that underlies much of the action has, at its heart, a patriarchal vicissitude. Again, how true of human nature.
Frank Hatt says, “Constance Smedley’s achievements would have been remarkable for any woman of her time. What makes them all the more remarkable is that from childhood she was paralysed from the waist down.”
What’s more remarkable still is that she could well have been forgotten, had it not been for a builders’ bonfire in a broken-down barn.