"I have lost count of the number of times I have heard performers ‘posh up’ their accents on stage and in the rehearsal room."Sophie Ball

During a brief visit home following the end of exams, I was able to spend an evening at my local theatre. The play depicted the fiery relationship between Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox, and foregrounded some thought-provoking parallels between the fraught political situation of the time and the one we are currently experiencing. I really enjoyed the performance, but on the way home, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something not quite right about it.

And then I realised why it had seemed so bizarre: every single person on that stage had spoken with a strong, proud, Scottish accent. Not RP, as is the wont at the ADC and the Corpus Playroom, but a beautiful Celtic lilt. I found it rather depressing that it should feel foreign and odd to hear what is fundamentally my own voice on a public platform. However, this did get me thinking about regional accent representation, or the abysmal lack of therein, on Cambridge stages.

“Actors in Cambridge actively alter their own voices in order to conform with the RP norm”

RP, or ‘received pronunciation’, is the default for most of the plays performed in Cambridge. One has the impression that casts’ voices have been homogenised to produce the ideal dulcet tones favoured by the BBC in its heyday. Of course, there is odd play set in Ireland, or, god forbid, the North, but due to the ostensible lack of interest from actors with native regional accents, parts tend to be filled by performers who must disguise their south-eastern English with varying degrees of success.

I think there are two primary reasons for this phenomenon. Firstly, the demographic involved with Cambridge theatre is primarily white, very middle-class, and mainly hailing from the more affluent parts of southern England. Anyone who does not share these traits is therefore inadvertently discouraged from participating, and a cyclical, hostile environment is created. It must be said, however, that efforts are being made to counter this, with the resounding success of the BME Macbeth, Smoker, and Musical Bar Night.

The second reason for this accent homogeny is that actors in Cambridge actively alter their own voices in order to conform with the RP norm. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard performers ‘posh up’ their accents on stage and in the rehearsal room. I’ve even witnessed it in supervisions. If I were to guess, I would say it probably stems from a mixture of impostor syndrome and a desire to communicate effectively with others. On a subconscious level, we all view RP as the accent of an intelligent, educated individual, and in a place where we must constantly justify our presence through performative academic exercises, it’s only natural that we should change the way we speak.

“Assuming a faux English accent just for the sake of it would be to acknowledge that my own accent is inferior, unworthy of attention, and that it should be suppressed”

On a more personal level however, we are afraid that people will not understand us if we speak with our own voices, and smooth out any irregularities so that we blend in with the herd. As a Scot, I am perhaps more acutely aware of this. I always make a point of auditioning with my own accent, as it allows me to retain my identity. Even if I am pretending to be someone else, I still have a strong sense of who I am, and where I’ve come from. Assuming a faux English accent just for the sake of it would be to acknowledge that my own accent is inferior, unworthy of attention, and that it should be suppressed. Nonsense, of course.

If we are to eliminate this RP vacuum that consumes all regional incongruities, several steps need to be taken. Regional accents must be valorised and praised on equal footing with RP, so that people feel able to speak their mind with their own voices. At the same time, regional playwrights should be given the spotlight they deserve on Cambridge stages. Only in this way will we be able to encourage and increase diversity within the drama scene, and in the university in general

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