Hastings Fringe Festival showcased unique portrayal of Annie Brassey

Heather Alexander as Annie Brassey
Heather Alexander as Annie Brassey

The Durbar Room was the perfect setting for a dramatic piece which explored the life of the explorer, Baroness Anna (‘please call me Annie’) Brassey, as many of the items collected on the family’s voyages fetched up in the museum.

The work proved to be fascinating Hastings Fringe fare, providing a feast for the senses and intellect, incorporating puppets, poetry, music, song, film, voiceover, live narration as well as dialogue. These were utilised to great effect to tell the complex tale of this indomitable adventurer, collector, travel writer, philanthropist and celebrity of the Victorian era. The writing and performances created a haunting impression as the audience were carried through the kaleidoscopic impressions of their lives, both onshore and aboard their yacht, The Sunbeam.

Resolute in her belief that children could only benefit from experiencing the world first hand, she and her husband, Thomas, took their five children on voyages around the globe, and the script, performances, lighting, props and costumes brought their world to life, drew the audience into it and managed to carry us along with them. The structure of the play is as unexpected as Annie’s life, with a core thread being provided by narration, delivered in a clear, genuine voice by Alex Hunt as their eldest son, Edward. This device also serves to provide a view of Annie as a human being, his mother, often in stark contrast with her public image. Annie herself is played by Heather Alexander, who subtly hints at the steel beneath a kind of luminous, other-worldly charm; she is a woman ahead of her time, born in the wrong century.

Even greater depth is achieved in the work by its evocation of life behind the scenes of the family’s public image, via a clear and absorbing depiction of the servants’ lives, particularly Bessie, a mesmerising performance by Arabella Ansar, who flipped from comedy to tragedy in the blink of an eye and whose singing was truly heart-rending. All other parts were played by an effortlessly versatile cast. The group’s next stop is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe from August 11, where audiences there will no doubt also fall under its spell. By Roz Balp.