The Progress Youth Theatre is performing Natalie Mitchell’s punchy feminist polemic When They Go Low this week, until Saturday 6 July.

The play, directed by Rachel Mary, is set in a secondary school during the election of a school captain, an election that becomes increasingly polarised by misogyny. The girls are admonished by the head teacher (played with teacherly bombast by Isabella McDonald) for not having enough self-respect after some salacious photographs of a student are published.

Reluctant but determined heroine Louise, played with authority by Ellen Blackburn, infuriated by the injustice of this one-sided response to such humiliation, stands as school captain candidate against insecure braggart Scott, played with devilish sympathy by Dylan Collie. Scott is desperately trying to maintain his position as top boy in the school with the help of his ferrety, grinning sidekick Jaden (Ben Riches) and the increasingly uncomfortable Caleb, played with nervous geekiness by James Laynesmith. As part of their attack, the boys publish a website ‘for laughs’ that rate the girls’ appearance.

The students are forced to explore their own opinions on feminism and misogyny during the election campaign; some of the girls find themselves ‘slut-shaming’ each other or boasting about their website rating, and when Caleb first asks to join the girls’ march, he is told “this is for people like us, not you.” Scott even tries to fend off the worst of his irresponsible tendencies in the form of the dangerously angry Charlie, played by a truly alarming Max Hijmering.

Louise gets a mix of support and doubt from her friends Rachel (Josie Kingdon) and Shabs (Lucy Handley). She eventually also gets help from the spirits of feminism, including Emmeline Pankhurst (Isabella McDonald again) to Michelle Obama (Lucy Handley again), in an extraordinarily imaginative scene of Damascene illumination.

Many members of the cast perform multiple roles in this play, so you need to play close attention! Sophie Connell (who also plays the singer Madonna), Juliette Kemp (also playing Sarah, Chimamanda and Ngozi Adichie) and Isabella McDonald (who also plays the head teacher and Emmeline Pankhurst) are regularly on-scene as a chorus of chattering students, giving voice to the mix of gossip, anxiety and moralising that runs like a stream through the school.

This complex, thoughtful play about how gender issues manifest themselves in a modern British school was brought alive by an astonishingly versatile and youthful cast. The soundtrack of Blondie, Madonna and the Spice Girls went down well too!

When They Go Low is being performed at the Progress Theatre, The Mount, Reading RG1 5HL at 7.30pm each evening until Saturday 6 July. Tickets can be bought online.

  1. The Progress Youth Theatre website and Facebook page
  2. ‘When they go low’ at the Progress Theatre
  3. Progress Theatre Tickets