The Wightman Theatre in Shrewsbury Square now boasts two companies. There’s the professionals, who’ve just completed their run of ‘Relatively Speaking’… and the Community Company, who have day jobs to go to. They opened their run of ‘Playhouse Creatures’ last night and – with a little more pace and punch – they’ll soon be giving the pros a run for their money. It’s a challenging, rude and somewhat fractured play; so the actors really do have to be on their metal. And they are all excellently cast and highly accomplished.
We’re in and around a somewhat seedy Playhouse in 17th Century London. Thanks to a recent Royal Decree, women are now permitted to take part in theatrical presentations. This is largely so the King can have his pick of them of course … but it is an early step towards emancipation.
Playwright April de Angelis has diligently researched the lives of five of the women who really did tread the boards back then … in order to put them on stage again. In her 1993 play, we glimpse their private lives, observe their personal battles, see them struggle with rehearsals, and watch them performing scenes from the regular repertoire of the day. And, being real, the characters are exceptionally well drawn.
We begin with cockney Doll Common, who is so old she can even recall when The Playhouse was still a bear pit. With a little blackening of the teeth, Kath Newbrook ages very convincingly (she’s much younger in the pub afterwards) and gives an almost off-hand performance of a woman who’s seen it all … but, deep down, still cares. She has some very adroit one-liners which Kath delivers with perfect, throw-away, precision.
The company is run by Mr Betterton, who we never see. But we do witness his callousness towards his wife, as he discards her in favour of younger women. Wendy Brown plays her with good grace and resigned dignity. The real Mrs Betterton was a stalwart of her day, often pressed into playing men (such as Iago and Lear’s Fool) when the male actors failed to show. “I have tasted the forbidden fruit”, she says. She’s also presented as a true working professional and her little lecture on deportment is done so well by Wendy that it tickles the ribs and touches the actor’s soul at the same time. Apparently, acting is all down to how you hold your head. Imagine a clock face. Look towards twenty to seven for shame; five past twelve for despair. If you’ve being strangled; it’s a quarter to three. It’s a very funny scene…and one that aspiring amateurs would do well to heed; as is her highly charged swansong as Lady Macbeth…actor and character sinking into insanity side by side.
Angie Beechey endows her Mrs Marshall with wonderfully enlarged theatricality. The Earl of Oxford has wronged her. She denounces him loudly from the stage and sticks pins in a wax effigy in her dressing room. Her comeuppance is to flee from being flogged as a witch. But at least she’d “get an audience”, she wryly observes.
Jo Cox is equally excellent at portraying the fall from grace of Mrs Farley – who we first meet reading the bible and later pity as a ‘fallen woman’, working the streets outside the theatre she once graced. Jo is the very convincing centrepiece of the most disturbing scene of the whole play, as she bites on a rag whilst her fellows attempt a cack-handed abortion.
And I was much taken by Ruth Cowell, who plays Nell Gwyn as a woman who hates oranges…and can’t wait to get rid of them to the audience. It’s a peach of a part … as she transforms herself from a tongue-tied debutant to leading lady. “I’m an actress, not a tart”, she protests. But she is still relegated to using the back stairs to reach the King’s boudoir.
Director Beverley Baker places her well-schooled cast in a refreshingly open-framed and artistically lit theatre, which makes The Wightman look quite splendid. And just as the original women boosted the London box office in 1669…I expect their successors will do the same in Shrewsbury this week.
Visit www.thewightman.co.uk for bookings & more information