Normally associated with the grimy if cheery surrounds of The Stand Comedy Club, comedian Lucy Porter has written an elegant and witty play about the trials of being an intelligent woman in the 18th century. Based on the true story of three young women in Edinburgh who formed a secret club to promote learning, it’s being performed in the entirely appropriate neo-classical surrounds of The Assembly Rooms.
The audience is first introduced to the three founding members, starting with the serious-minded Poly – who speaks of ‘base insidious man’ and has a fondness for the Roman historian Livy. She is soon joined by Thalia, whose habit of stowing items in her ample cleavage and enthusiasm for pleasure provide much of the comedy throughout the play. Finally there is Clio, the most clearly feminist of the trio, who rejects marriage in favour of Newton and Halley and has a strong sense of Scottish identity. Tension builds as it seems that Poly will be forced through poverty into marriage with an older man who suffers from ‘an excess of catarrh’. There’s also topical discord between Thalia, who sees herself as English, and Clio who is a proud Scot.
The acting is good, and a brief switch to equally strong singing reinforces the talents of all three women. Then there’s the setting: the intimate, candlelit room seems built for whispering secrets, and allows the trio to treat the audience as the six extra members of the club (there are meant to be nine to match the number of muses, obviously). With some gentle audience participation pitched at the right level, this is a pleasing production. It’s squarely targeted at those who enjoy period pieces, and perhaps at a more mature audience than the typical Fringe comedy crowd.
There’s the odd pop culture reference, such as a nod to Fight Club, but the eighteenth-century language does risk making the club members seem precious rather than feisty – a fact which at times made them less sympathetic and believable than they might have been. The ending was also rather too rose-tinted for my taste, given that a woman’s lot remained shoddy for the next 150 years.
But the originality and warmth of The Fair Intellectual Club, combined with its historical background, make it an interesting piece. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, but it’s ideal viewing if you want a kind-hearted, quality show – one which isn’t going to upset your gran, but may still leave you quietly pondering women’s rights.