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Review: Eglantyne

Adelaide Fringe

“Humanity owes the child the best it has to give.” These words, attributed to Eglantyne Jebb (1876–1928), exemplify the motivation of one of the world’s least-recognised human rights champions. ★★★★

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Writer and performer Anne Chamberlain wants this to change. Eglantyne is her solo theatre work which sets out to raise the profile of this significant social reformer and co-founder of the Save the Children organisation.

The play begins as Eglantyne and her sister Dorothy are calling for support during a public meeting at London’s Albert Hall. Outside, demonstrators denounce them as “ghastly traitors” who want to feed “enemy children”.

In a time when many were calling for charity to begin at home, the sisters’ plans to raise funds for Europe’s starving war victims were radical and out of keeping with the usual pursuits of young ladies of their status and upbringing.

From this key moment in Jebb’s life, the performance cuts back and forth between her privileged Shropshire childhood and adult years, and corresponding events in Chamberlain’s own early years in New Zealand. Simple props and clothing changes help us identify different characters, and a change in accent makes clear the distinction between the actress and the activist.

Eglantyne Jebb was a complex and forthright woman who used her writing skills, organising talents and passion to address the needs she saw. She went to university at a time when it was thought unnecessary for girls (unless you were ugly or “deficient” – code for unmarriageable) and, after her beloved brother’s early death, she devoted her life to the search for a useful purpose. Her romantic life was tragically unfulfilled, even though she had significant relationships with several men and at least one woman.

From suffrage rallies to spiritualism, Eglantyne never stopped pursuing her dreams, even though ongoing thyroid disease caused heart and possibly mental health problems. She was instrumental in persuading the British to care about the victims of situations such as the famine which followed World War I, and the Russian harvest failure.

Towards the end of her life, while living in Switzerland, Jebb created a children’s charter which became the foundation for what we now know as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 191 of the 193 member countries of the United Nations.

There is no doubt this fact-packed little play reflects parallels with current events in Syria and beyond. In highlighting Eglantyne Jebb’s “greatness of spirit”, Chamberlain reminds us that fidelity to one’s ideals and a focus on practical morality can result in a lasting contribution to the lives of our fellow human beings.

Four stars

Eglantyne is being presented at The Arch – Holden Street Theatres until March 6.

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