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Celebrated Virgins

Devised by Katie Elin-Salt and Eleri B Jones

Theatr Clwyd, Mold

Mon 23 May – Sat 4 Jun, 2022; 2 hrs 10 mins

Victoria John and Heather Agyepong as Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. All pics: ffotoNant
Victoria John and Heather Agyepong as Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. All pics: ffotoNant

The love that dare not speak its name has found a voice in North Wales.

Nearly 20 years after the first civil partnership in the UK, which marked a turning point in the popular opinion of homosexual relationships, we now look back at people who loved each other but had to keep it quiet for fear of violent or legal repercussions with a great degree of sympathy.

This is the premise behind Celebrated Virgins written by Katie Elin-Salt and directed by Eleri B Jones. It tells the story of two upper-class Irish women, who ran away from their oppressive environment to seek a home away from society in rural Wales.

Lady Eleanor Butler (Victoria John) and Miss Sarah Ponsonby (Heather Agyepong) were considered a curiosity in their day and became an odd couple worthy of visits by the likes of Wellington and Wordsworth, among others. They were written about and remarked upon by many, and their celebrated home, Plas Newydd in Llangollen, became a prominent rest stop on the route to Dublin.

General astonishment about and disapproval of their lifestyle led them to keep quiet about its exact nature, but there was much speculation over whether it was sexual or merely of profound friendship. For Salt and Jones, it was time their story was told.

This play then is a narrative from Ponsonby's perspective and deeply absorbing.

Heather Agyepong, Victoria John and the rest of the cast are excellent, and there is a strong and well-drilled contribution from a community-derived cast too, perpetuating Theatr Clwyd's commitment to local involvement.

It might be difficult to communicate a 50-year relationship in one evening, but the play accentuates the dilemma of both women, which at times was one of great personal danger, let alone loss of status in society and inheritance. It was also good to see a focus on Mary Carryll, a servant who spent a lifetime committed to Sarah, and whose otherwise untold story also merits retelling – hers is the third name on the three-sided memorial to the women in St Collens church, Llangollen.

This is a gripping drama, which holds the attention throughout. There are plenty of funny moments to lighten the mood – especially Mary’s monologue, beautifully delivered by Emma Pallant.

The setting in The Mix – Theatr Clwyd’s smaller outdoor venue – offers an immediacy and warmth that only adds to the generosity of spirit on show in the drama.

Tickets and Information here


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