Edinburgh Fringe 2015
A remarkable woman, an intrepid reporter, an impressive industrialist, a clever inventor – and a winning smile. Ladies and gentlemen: meet Nellie Bly!
It’s genuinely quite difficult to overstate just what an important woman – what an important person, full stop – Nellie Bly was. She is arguably most famous as an investigative journalist who faked her way into a mental institution with only the filmiest of guarantees that she’d be able to claim her way out, and produced a piece of work that is at least as important as Mary Wollstonecraft’s Maria. Not only that, she managed to travel around the world in even less time than Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg. These two things alone would be remarkable enough, but – as this entertaining hour shows – Nellie’s life was full of adventure and progress, in a time when women didn’t even have the vote, let alone a voice on the world stage.
Bly’s career arguably started in a fit of exasperation, in a response to a misognistic article asking what girls were good for. Bly spent the rest of her life eloquently proving exactly what. Any spunky and fiery ‘girl reporter’ you’ve heard of is very likely a romanticised version of Nellie Bly.Bly was famous at one time for her charming smile – quite possibly an attempt to devalue her intelligence and writing by sly reference to her gender, but it’s worth noting that a great deal of success of this show does indeed owe a great deal to writer/performer Maya Levy’s engaging and warm persona. She – as Nellie Bly – delivers a life story in a somewhat Methodist lecture style, often citing the value of positive energy, correctly applied, leading to great things. Given the biographical nature of the piece, this is more episodic than narrative: in all honesty, you could sink an entire hour into Bly’s expose of Ten Days In A Madhouse alone – and this has the pleasing feel of dipping into the best parts of a well written autobiography.
Most aspects of Bly’s life are covered in a trim and swiftly moving hour, including her later career as an industrialist, with such care and attention given to her employees that could be considered forward thinking and progressive even today. There’s even a section given over to the time that Bly reviewed bicycles, which to us might seem somewhat frivolous and even banal (Bly was, after all, often regulated to the ‘women’s interest’ pages), but – as she herself claimed, cycling had ‘done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world’. There’s also a sequence that anyone complaining about the current tube strikes in London might do well to take note of, and observe how much / little has changed in the intervening years.
Special mention has to go to Steve Wilson’s intelligent set design, an attractive vehicle that transports Nellie through her life story, and borders just on this side of steampunk. Maya Levy heads up the chapters of Bly’s life with a collection of witty songs, and delivers what could be cold, dry facts with the grace and pride that they deserve: Bly’s journalism, and later, work in industry, made many significant changes that improved the lives of women and other disadvantaged people in ways that still seem remarkable today.
Nellie Bly tells us, at the start of the hour, that she was nicknamed ‘Pinky’ because of her preference for wearing that traditionally girly colour. By the end the piece, any little girls in the audience may well have found a new heroine more compelling than a Disney princess. Impressively, this show is on the free fringe, and is well worth you seeking out.