There are times during Muriel Romanes direction of Linda Griffiths’ Age of Arousal when the sharp, witty dialogue and fast-paced interaction hurtle its themes of sexual politics and women’s rights in Victorian Britain straight into present day relevance. Yet there are others, when the lascivious and at times bawdy humour make if feel more like ‘Carry On Suffragette’.
Mary (Ann Louise Ross), a veteran from the protests, runs a typewriting school for emancipated, modern and ‘odd’ women with her partner – in business and in love – Rhoda (Clare Lawrence Moody). When the three Madden sisters enrol in their college and Mary’s playboy-like cousin Everard arrives on the scene, relationships and beliefs are tested as tensions – sexual and otherwise – rise to the surface.
Much use is made of the characters voicing their thoughts to the audience and it is here – during their inner monologues – that much of the humour takes place. The contrast of what the seemingly prim and proud Rhoda is thinking whilst she sternly resists Everard’s advances is indeed amusing; and although the effect is a little overdone in places, it is to the cast’s credit that they pace and perform this without causing any confusion.
Ross’ performance as Mary is excellent: capturing the feistiness of this ‘Amazon’ whose edges are beginning to dull with age. Molly Innes as the awkward Virginia Madden is also superb, adeptly showing her character’s journey from self-loathing alcoholic to confident ‘new woman’ (via a voyage of self-discovery in Berlin). And Alexandra Mathie is as watchable as always as Alice Madden, an aging spinster with most of the best throwaway lines.
Janet Bird’s set design coupled with Jeanine Davies’ lighting also deserves mention, with a stark almost medical set using creative and inventive lighting techniques to transform it from candlelit bedsit to art gallery, where the Impressionist paintings on display are suggested by dappled patches of light on the parquet-floored stage.
Age of Arousal is everything you would expect from a show at the Lyceum: a well-produced and enjoyable play with a high calibre cast and top quality design. Co-produced by champions of women’s theatre Stellar Quines, the subject matter is fascinating and well-chosen. Yet, by attempting to be both a thought-provoking examination of society’s sexual mores and attitudes, and a comedic period romp, its overall impact isn’t quite as arousing as it could have been.
Age of Arousal runs until 12 March. Ticket information is available on the Lyceum website.