Perched and ready
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.
Playhouse Creatures – Review
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.
An extraordinary play about extraordinary women
I am sitting stuffing a bum roll. Later I will be mending corsets and making Amazon headdresses. I feel like Doll Common. Particularly as Mistress Betterton (Verity Mann) is directing my labours. This is all part and parcel of directing ‘Playhouse Creatures’, a moving often comic tale of the real life women who were pioneer actresses on the English stage.
This is an extraordinary play about extraordinary women. It is hard but important to remember that Shakespeare was writing the roles of Juliet, Desdemona and Cleopatra for men to perform.
King Charles II had seen women on stage in France when in exile, and so the possibility arose for English women to do the same. Waiting for a play to begin in a London theatre, the King questioned why it was late starting. The answer came, “Sire, the player queen is still shaving”! The result was a Royal Decree allowing women to legally act on stage.
This was by no means an easy route. These were five tough women and I am delighted to say I have five tough actresses to help me tell this story, supported by an excellent team of creatives. Come to see this show; you will laugh and you will cry. Now back to rehearsals and . . . the bum rolls and petticoats!
Carol Davies directs Saddleworth Players forthcoming production of ‘Playhouse Creatures’ at the Millgate Arts Centre from 2–9 February. Tickets from our booking site.
The perfect role does exist!
Mary Betterton is an absolute gift of a role for an actor. In real life she was one of the very first actresses on stage and feted as the best tragedian of her day. She came from a theatrical family and married one of the King’s Players’ leading men, Thomas Betterton. The play begins just as her star is waning and younger actresses are waiting in line to take the great roles. Her husband will, of course, continue to play the lead , partnered by fresh blood. Playhouse Creatures is set in 1669, and prompts us to ruminate on how little the lot of an actress has changed.
That said, the role of Mary Betterton could not be more perfect for me. Not only do I get to play her, in all her high restoration finery — I also get to play excerpts from her performances and rehearsals from Amazons through to maids but, time and time again coming back to her favourite; Lady Macbeth. It’s a challenge, but a thoroughly worthwhile one.
Playhouse Creatures is a gripping play set in a perilous time when rags to riches dreams really could come true, but equally, fortunes could reverse in the blink of an eye.
Verity Mann plays Mary Betterton in Saddleworth Players forthcoming production of ‘Playhouse Creatures’ at the Millgate Arts Centre from 2–9 February. Tickets from our booking site.
A rollercoaster of historical proportions
So you think your life is a rollercoaster? We ain’t got nuffin on the character I play in Playhouse Creatures, Elizabeth Farley. At the start of the play her father, a preacher, has just died, and as an upright young woman she is trying to carry on his work, even though she’s been left destitute. Towards the end of the play she looks for a gutter to lie in, having earned nothing begging and attempting to sell herself all afternoon, and we don’t see her again. In between she becomes an actress, a leading lady, the King’s mistress, and a mother. She soars on stage and plumbs the depths of life experience ... and it’s a real challenge to pull it off convincingly.
This is my debut with Saddleworth Players, having moved the great distance from Rochdale last year, and it’s a cracking play for the five of us to get our teeth into. I love the way April de Angelis writes, particularly her historical plays about the theatre, and the female characters she creates. These women are used and abused, have become hardened in many ways, and yet display moments of care and compassion which override their need for self preservation. Come ready to ride a rollercoaster of historical proportions, with quite a bit of laughter and a few surprises thrown in.
Angela Bryan plays Elizabeth Farley in Saddleworth Players forthcoming production of ‘Playhouse Creatures’ at the Millgate Arts Centre from 2–9 February. Tickets from our booking site.