There are many things that could go wrong when writing a play about someone’s life and achievements: you run the risk of missing out key events due to time constrictions, favouring personal milestones over public ones (or vice versa), or even run out of material. Yet in his play Jennie Lee: Tomorrow is a New Day, Matthew Knights brings a remarkable woman to life, creating a touching piece of theatre that celebrates Jennie Lee’s greatest accomplishments.
To say Knights’ play has potential is an understatement. Since its conception in 2019 as part of a workshop in Lee’s hometown of Lochgelly, Fife, Jennie Lee: Tomorrow is a New Day has been developed by Knights and director Emma Lynne Harley into a play that is more than ready for the stage. In a rehearsed reading performed by Knights Theatre, the show’s production value is merely hinted at through some sound effects and the stage directions read to us, which help set the scene. For now, though, all eyes are on Jennie Lee herself, portrayed by both Trish Mullin and Hana Mackenzie.
In choosing to have two actors share the role of Lee, Knights has created a charming dynamic between Lee and her younger self. In the first half of the play, we see Mackenzie’s young Jennie look to her older self for advice as she makes a number of life-changing decisions, both personal and political. As the play progresses and Lee ages, the balance between the two actors shifts, with Mullin taking the helm. As she goes on to do what Lee is remembered for – becoming the first Minister for the Arts and founding the Open University – Mackenzie remains present, reminding Mullin not to lose sight of her roots and what motivated her to get involved into politics in the first place.
Sharing the role also allows Mackenzie and Mullin to each show a different side of Jennie Lee. Mackenzie’s young Jennie is passionate and sometimes struggles to control her emotions, whereas Mullin’s older Jennie is measured and more realistic in her ambitions. When the two Jennies clash, it is as if we are seeing Lee’s own struggle to stay true to herself while also working the system. This method of exploring Lee’s political aspirations and inner thoughts adds a depth and authenticity that could easily have been lost while trying to fit in all of Lee’s achievements.
Supporting both Jennies along the way is George Docherty as the Curator, who is responsible for the story being told. The idea that Tomorrow is a New Day is a walk through an exhibition of Lee’s life is lost in the rehearsed reading, though it will certainly be intriguing when it can be realised on stage. Throughout the production, Docherty plays a myriad of roles, with only a few hats or a change of accent to differentiate between the various secondary players in Lee’s life. Docherty does an excellent job at keeping up the pace, and the whole experience must have been a fun test of his acting skills.
Though the theatre industry is in a dark place right now, the future is bright for Knights Theatre. This is a show that deserves to be seen on stage. I look forward to seeing it again then!