Musical Genius Suppressed Because She Was A Woman

“So then I had to confess that Fanny had composed the lied (German for song)”

Felix Mendelssohn to Queen Victoria

Corey Montague-Sholay as Felix Mendelssohn and Charlie Russell as Fanny Mendelssohn. (Photo: Pamela Raith)

At what must be the prettiest theatre setting in the Home Counties, the Watermill at Bagnor, Newbury plays a play with music about Felix Mendelssohn’s elder sister Fanny (Charlie Russell).  Despite her obvious talent, her father Abraham felt that orchestral composition was no occupation for a woman. She learned to play the piano and to sing but didn’t learn any of the stringed instruments, a skill necessary for full orchestral composing. 

What I found a revelation was that in the 1830s when the play takes place that there was only live music and the written score and Fanny appears to compose and conduct hearing the music in her head.  Felix (Corey Montague-Sholay) her brother is working on his famous wedding march of Oberon and Titania, the one we all sing as “Here Comes the Bride, See how she wobbles from side to side!” 

There is a third Mendelssohn sibling, Paul (Harry Kershaw) who is more clumsy comedian than musician and always listening at doors. Mamma Mendelssohn (Kim Ismay) has arranged a suitor for Fanny, Herr Wilhelm Hensel  (George Howard) a master of the most egregious puns, the kind that make you wince.

George Howard as Wilhelm Hensel and Charlie Russell as Fanny (Photo: Pamela Raith)

A letter has arrived at the Berlin home of the Mendelssohns and it announces that Queen Victoria’s favourite tune is “L’Italien” composed by Fanny but misappropriated by her brother Felix.  This appears factual but the play will take off in a delightful fantasy journey to London to meet the Queen with Clara Schumann (Jade May Lin) and Fanny disguised as young men.  They are pursued by Felix and his Mama.

In Act Two the frivolity begins on a train ride, and on arriving at the port the Boatman (Harry Kershaw) explains that his joke is a visual rhyme and says, “Everyone’s a critic!”  Fanny and Clara, pretending to be men, are almost sussed by a landlady (Kim Ismay).  There is wonderful audience participation when Fanny with baton, conducting an orchestra, coaches an audience member to ring a bell at a special moment in the music.  The rest of the audience contribute a rising crescendo.  Charlie Russell adlibs and has a magical rapport with the audience in this comedic romp.   She is a natural. Both Charlie Russell and Harry Kershaw are alumni of Mischief Theatre, responsible for The Play That Went Wrong  and other spoof hit productions.

Jade May Lin as Clara Schumann. (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Charlie Russell is also listed for her creative contribution with author Calum Finlay and with other collaborators, Katie-Ann McDonough, who also directs, and Rebecca Gwyther.  The programme explains what is Fact in this production and Fiction.  Although Frau Mendelssohn did not say, “ Music can and must be only an ornament.” Fanny’s father Abraham wrote to Fanny in 1828, “You must school yourself more seriously and eagerly for your true profession, a young woman’s only profession, being mistress of the house.”

Sophia Pardon has selected some good costumes and her swagged music room set has two doors to encourage someone leaving not meeting someone entering.  A portrait of Victoria and her German husband hangs in view.

The first act is slower than the second but it is worth the wait for the sheer delight of the finishing act.  I shall look out for Charlie Russell in future. 

Corey Montague-Sholay as Felix Mendelssohn and Charlie Russell as Fanny Mendelssohn. (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Production Notes


Written by Calum Finlay

Directed by Katie-Ann McDonough




Jade May Lin

George Howard

Harry Kershaw

Kim Ismay

Corey Montague-Sholay

Charlie Russell


Director: Katie-Ann McDonough

Designer: Sophia Pardon

Lighting Designer: David Howe

Sound Designer: Thomas Wasley

Musical Director and Composer: Yshani Perinpanayagam

Fight Director: Greg Tannahill


Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes with an interval

Booking to 15th June 2024


Watermill Theatre



RG20 8AE

Box Office: 01635 46044


Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge

at the Watermill Theatre

on 29th May  2024