Seven Against Edinburgh: The ‘gig theatre’ show with rock anthems inspired by Victorian university trailblazers

It was a campaign that divided the medical establishment in Victorian Edinburgh and sparked a riot in the street, but led to women securing the right to go to university in Britain.

Orla Bayne, Iona Kellock, Mia Haden, Fiza Owais, Mya Gray, Ella Williams, Sophie Kayembe, Isla Campbell and Alannah Skellet star in Seven Against Edinburgh, which is running at the Lyceum rehearsal studio until Saturday. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

Now the trailblazing efforts of the Edinburgh Seven, the young women who joined forces to demand the right to study medicine in the city, have inspired new rock anthems and a “gig theatre” stage show.

A pop-up venue has been created at the Royal Lyceum’s rehearsal studio for the premiere of a new production aimed at teenage audiences, which is running until Saturday.

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It not only recalls the fierce opposition the Edinburgh Seven came up against more than 150 years ago, but tackles why the campaigners have been all but ignored in a city which still has more statues of animals than women.

Orla Bayne stars in Seven Against Edinburgh. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

Sophia Jex-Blake, Isabel Thorne, Edith Pechey, Matilda Chaplin, Helen Evans, Mary Anderson and Emily Bovell made history when they became the first women to be admitted onto a degree programme in Edinburgh in 1869 after a campaign backed by The Scotsman generated widespread publicity.

They faced repeated hostility, abuse and prejudice, culminating in a riot outside an anatomy exam, and were unable to graduate. But the groundswell of support and publicity they generated led to the passing of legislation allowing women to go to university in 1877.

The new stage show, which is set in modern-day Edinburgh, sees the “Patriarchy Slayers” band join forces with feminist activists “Raging Birds” to retell the story of the 19th century student campaigners.

Seven Against Edinburgh also explores the modern-day prejudices and barriers faced by young women, as well as the gender health gap, which still sees women receive poorer healthcare in the UK than men.

Mya Gray stars in Seven Against Edinburgh. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

Seven Against Edinburgh is the first production to be staged by the Lyceum Young Company, a new talent development strand launched by the theatre, which issued an open call for performers last year.The show, which features a nine-strong cast, was instigated by Edinburgh-based theatre-maker Becky Hope-Palmer, who read about Sophia Jex-Blake in a book by Jenni Murray, long-time presenter of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

Hope-Palmer, writer and co-director of Edinburgh Against Seven, said: “I hadn’t heard of the Edinburgh Seven at all until then. I began to do some digging to try to find the rest of the story.

"I realised that there had recently been a plaque put up at Surgeons’ Hall, but that was basically all that there was about them, despite everything that happened around the campaign, which is a point that we really nail home in the show.

“I felt it was such a mad story that it needed to be told in some other way.

Isla Campbell stars in Seven Against Edinburgh. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

“I started writing the play properly towards the end of 2019 although it has been in many forms since then.

"I wrote the play without it having anywhere to go with it initially. I got some development time with the (feminist theatre company) Stellar Quines and the amazing playwright Nicola McCartney, as I’d never written my own play, even though I’d directed a lot.

"We tore it apart and put it back together, and Caitlin Skinner (Stellar Quines’ artistic director) then suggested doing it with young people, so it was tweaked again to have them tell the story. At that point I took it to the Lyceum and it seemed like such a perfect fit.”

Hope-Palmer has created the show with co-director Sophie Howell and musical director Sofia Kherroubi-Garcia, who has written the new songs for the production, which sees all the performers act, sing and play instruments while playing multiple modern-day and historic roles, including the members of the Edinburgh Seven and their fiercest opponents.

Seven Against Edinburgh is running at the Lyceum rehearsal studio until Saturday. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

Howell said: “We weren’t able to run our usual summer holiday classes last summer but had the chance to do some research and develop with some young people.

“As soon as they got in the room with the script they just loved it - they were so fascinated in the story and it really spoke to them, even though it was from the Victoria era, because of its relevance.

"I knew it needed to be our first Lyceum Young Company production. I couldn’t think of a better story to tell than one that nobody still really knows about."

An appeal for 16-21 year-old female-identifying actor-musicians stressed they did not need to have any previous stage experience to get involved in the show, which stars Orla Bayne, Iona Kellock, Mia Haden, Fiza Owais, Mya Gray, Ella Williams, Sophie Kayembe, Isla Campbell and Alannah Skellett.

Howell said: “We’ve got some amazing up-and-coming performers and a really diverse cast from different backgrounds.

“They’ve really been living in the whole world of the Patriarchy Slayers and the Raging Birds.

Mya Gray, Ella Williams, Iona Kellock and Orla Bayne in Seven Against Edinburgh, which is directed by Becky Hope-Palmer and Sophie Howell. Picture: Mihaela Bodlovic

"They’ve taken on an identity as young women who want to be part of this bad-ass feminist society going off on these missions and quests, and fallen in love with their characters.”

Hope-Palmer said: "We've always thought of the show as gig theatre - there’s a gig set-up and the band are on stage all the time."Pitching this show as a play with lots of music in it to young people who haven't trained professionally before is a big ask.

"They're all playing music at the same time as they're acting, which I hope is a spectacle in itself, and lots of the characters have been rewritten because of the influence of the cast.

"It’s been an amazing journey and experience for us all during what’s still a very challenging time for theatre.”

Fiza Owais, who plays Sophia and Sascha, said: "The show tells an important forgotten feminist history that changed the future for women's education. To be part of a cast and crew that brings this special story to life is a joy."

Isla Campbell, who plays Mary and Nell, added: “Telling this story is an absolute honour, shining a light on the work women have had to do throughout history to be treated equally to their counterparts and recognising how these imbalances are still persistent."

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