This play is a thoughtful and sympathetic exploration of a little-explored subject: the lives and careers of the first female performers to appear on the London stage. It is set in the Restoration period of the seventeenth century and focuses on five women – real historical characters – and their theatrical fortunes in the bawdy, licentious times that followed the overturned Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell.
The play has an all-female cast. Men only materialise as noises off, a chaotic mixture of whooping, heckling and a baying mob reaction that veers constantly between applause and jeering. Theatre-going was tremendously popular among the aristocracy, but that was no guarantee of polite behaviour; as one actress says, “louts and lords, lords and louts; who could tell the difference?”
The action of the play is mostly behind the scenes, with brief forays onto the stage itself. The separate life-stories of the actresses emerge as they compare notes in between performances, their moods shifting from gloomy pessimism to fragile elation, from insecure bickering to loyal solidarity. They pin their hopes sometimes on their chances of a ‘rendezvous’ with a rich hanger-on, but these rarely go according to plan despite the opportunities to filch stage costumes so as to make a good impression. Much of the time they are weighed down by dread – of pregnancy, public humiliation or the certainty of growing old and being replaced by younger, fresher rivals. Also by their ever-present stage-fright: “You don’t know what that silence is like before you speak.”
Carole Davies’s skilful direction does full justice to the complexities of the script. The performances never stiffen into caricature – the constant flux of their lives is sensitively conveyed. The stage-set and costumes are further strengths of the production. The play opens onto a gloomy, cavernous scene which gradually brightens as the precarious glory days of the theatre are re-enacted. There is a strong cast, with no weak links. Liz Travis and Angela Bryan give good versatile performances which cover a wide range of emotions from spitefulness and professional jealousy to wistful hope that somehow things will turn out right. Anne Wright is always convincing as the veteran backstage fixer who has seen it all, has no illusions about the realities of her trade, but has managed to survive with some of her fondness for the theatre still intact.
The two most demanding parts are taken by Kate Davies and Verity Mann. Kate brings lots of freshness and naïve enthusiasm to her part as Nell Gwyn, the stage-struck young girl who grabs all the applause and attention and finally manages to shack up with King Charles. I’m not sure how historically accurate the script is here, but Kate carries the role off dashingly. Verity brings out all the subtleties of the part of Mistress Betterton, the leading lady and theatre manager’s wife. At first she seems as complacent and controlling as Lynda Snell in the Ambridge pantos, and her own acting style teeters constantly on the edge of melodrama. In the second half, however, we can see a more vulnerable, nuanced approach as she has to accept the realities of growing older. The contrast between her earlier rendering of Cleopatra and her later portrayal of Lady Macbeth is a piece of theatrical history in itself.
Altogether this is a praiseworthy production of an interesting play, well worth going out to see on a freezing cold night. It was thoroughly appreciated by the first-night audience, and I hope their numbers will swell as the run goes on.
Saddleworth Players production of ‘Playhouse Creatures’ at the Millgate Arts Centre runs from 2–9 February. Tickets from our booking site.