Miss Johnson

When I was younger, I had a personalised keyring – one of those that tells you what your name means and lists other famous people with that name. At the time I concluded that there hadn’t been many famous Lauras, as the keyring had to resort to “similar” names like Lauren and Loretta. The omission of Laura Knight, acclaimed twentieth century artist, Dame Commander of the British Empire, and first woman elected to full membership of the Royal Academy, now strikes me as unforgivable.

I didn’t know any of this, in fact I’d barely heard of Laura Knight, until I went to see Miss Johnson, a new play by Amanda Whittington. Specially commissioned for the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, it is currently being performed by students of the MA in Acting – Contemporary.

The play begins in 1970, as executors enter the now-dead Knight’s flat and begin to catalogue her work. A curious Knight watches from the sidelines, and soon we are back at the beginning of her career, as the young teenager Laura Johnson attends Nottingham School of Art and rails against the rule that, as a woman, she is unable to attend life drawing classes. She meets and later marries the painter Harold Knight. From then on, the play gives us snapshots of Knight’s life, as she visits Yorkshire, Cornwall, Baltimore in the USA, and a travelling circus, all in the pursuit of her art. The overarching theme is her search to better her art, discover new subjects worthy of painting, and establish herself as an artist.

The entire cast gave strong performances, belying their student status. Particularly good were Lauren Orrock as the young Laura Johnson, conveying the youthful artist’s passion and determination, and Phoebe Ladenburg as her older counterpart, as well as Sam Ducane as Harold Knight, notably in the scene in which he stands trial as a conscientious objector.

Where the play excels is in its exploration of the circumstances surrounding the creation of Knight’s greatest paintings. Scenes involving the circus performers, for instance, and the black nurse Pearl Johnson, show how Knight had a sympathy for her subjects. Some of the play was a little hard to follow for someone like me, who had no prior knowledge of Laura Knight’s life and work.

For me the greatest scenes came towards the end of the play, as Knight travels to Germany to paint the Nuremberg trials. A particularly difficult subject, Phoebe Ladenburg was able to convey Knight’s complex feelings about her commission, helped by a strong script.

Directed by Martin Wylde and with a simple but atmospheric and effective set, this is a strong piece that deserves to be seen.

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