19:15PM. Tuesday. February 5th 2019. Night three of Playhouse Creatures.
I’m currently sat on my little perch in the Millgate tech box, excited for another run of a great, gritty little show called Playhouse Creatures. I expect that the cast are just about ready, the audience are sipping their last pre-show drinks and, I hope, my sound operator colleague Emma Sykes is arriving at the theatre!
Playhouse is a show I’ve dabbled in before, doing tech for an extract performed in a –
^that was as far as I got before the aforementioned sound colleague arrived and it was time to gear up for the show. I’m now writing just post performance and I have to say; what a treat of a show Playhouse Creatures really is – both to work on and to watch.
April de Angelis has given us a gem. Five characters full of gusto and wit, some hilarious one liners – and she even managed to squeeze the Great Fire of London in, just for good measure!
My previous experience with the play meant I had dipped my toes into the world of these five women, the first on the British stage, before. But here’s the thing about dipping; only when I was invited to be part of Millgate’s production of Playhouse, by director Carol Davies, did I really get the chance to throw myself into de Angelis’ world of driven actresses, and the barrage of issues they grappled with. This is the story of the pioneers we never learn about – women. Five women of different backgrounds, generations and personalities; de Angelis offers us a microcosm of the thousands of women who, throughout history, have raised their heads above the parapet to enter previously male professions. The playhouse setting, of course, makes way for some fantastic drama and makes the huge personalities of the women totally believable.
The period of the play gave us the opportunity to use beautiful restoration costume pieces (many of which were constructed by our very own Verity Mann!) and delve into the architecture of a 17th century playhouse during the design process. Whilst period pieces aren’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea, this production is anything but dull. De Angelis has offered us the opportunity to be just a little bit irreverent, pointing out the imperfections in our beloved institution that is the theatre. Each of the five characters (Nell Gwyn, Elizabeth Farley, Rebecca Marshall, Mary Betterton and Doll Common) brings their story into the tiring room; we learn of how they entered the theatre, and how they were eventually pushed, or enticed out despite their talent and determination. Over the course of being involved in the show, I’ve come to feel resentment against the establishment when some of our leading ladies are forced out of their dear profession, and find solace in those who have the happier endings.
We have a fantastic cast of actresses on hand to give justice to the depth of each of the women; Kate Davies brings boundless energy and an admirably assertive quality to young Nell Gwyn; she’s boisterous, gets what she wants and has that hopeful gleam in her eye – Kate’s youthful Nell implies the potential women’s contribution brought to the theatre all those years ago. Ann Wright’s impeccable comic timing brings out Doll Common’s humour, her gripping story-telling reminding us that it is her years spent in the Playhouse that have shaped her. Angela Bryan draws out the nuanced personality of Elizabeth Farley; Mrs Farley’s puritan background may have given her a hard exterior, but Angela ensures her moments of excitement, love and fear all shine through. Verity Mann plays a collected Mary Betterton – her years of commitment to her art mean she has developed the perfectly polite persona, but Verity shows us that it is being on the stage that sets Mrs Betterton’s heart on fire; her passion for the theatre knows no bounds. Mrs Marshall’s bold, proud and fiery disposition is portrayed fantastically by Liz Travis; she isn’t one to stand by and be quiet – this often makes her the bringer of great comedy.
As a designer and a technician, Playhouse Creatures is one of those joyous plays that never stops moving. Inside, outside, onstage, offstage. Market sounds, raucous tavern-eqsue hullaballoo, thunderous applause, rapidly spreading fire! It’s been great fun building the visual and auditory world of the Playhouse Creatures for all of us involved. There’s a lighting or a sound cue on most pages of the script. We like to think this reflects the pace of the show, and even the lives of the characters – these are busy women, the tiring room traffic never stops! However, whilst there is a laugh to be found in every scene, there are some truly poignant moments that remind us what the first actresses on the British stage had to deal with when they took that step into the spotlight. Their story is an important one – one I’m so glad I could be part of telling. I hope to see a few full auditoriums before the end of the run – it really is worth braving the February chill.