“One can go a long way in the theatre with an open mouth”
The pop-up space created on the grounds of Chichester Festival Theatre to help celebrate its 50th anniversary is a curious thing, Named Theatre on the Fly and constructed solely from recycled material, its rough edges and unreserved bench seating speaks of its temporary nature but the introduction of a fully operational fly tower, whose machinery is laid bare for all to see, has a certain elegance about it. And it forms the ideal backdrop for April De Angelis’ play Playhouse Creatures which is set in, and backstage at, a seventeenth century theatre.
Specifically, it takes place during the Restoration. Puritanism has ended and the theatres reopened and for the first time, women are allowed on the stage. But as we follow a group of pioneering actresses in a working company, we see the struggles, compromises and stark realities they are faced with, in this exceedingly hard-hitting environment which they bear variously with grace, bawdiness, calculated drive and an ultimate equanimity that this is a tough world for a woman.
De Angelis hits on a real truth here and it is sadly as true now as it was then. Whilst embracing the progress made in women finally being allowed on the stage, grande dame of the group Mary Betterton bemoans the paucity of decent roles for older women that it exposes, she longs to play Lady M but then what lies after that. And in the playing of the role, one can imagine Alexandra Gilbreath asking the same question. Having dazzled us with her Hermione, her Olivia and her Emilia, and teased us with a scintillating “out, out, damn’d spot…” which simply demands she be cast in the Scottish Play pretty sharpish, where are the parts for her to progress onto to really test her, the types of roles that will see her male counterparts elevated to hallowed ground.
The play also follows other difficulties faced by women in the theatre, some more specific to the time. Fiona Hampton’s sharp Elizabeth Farley is determined to catch the eye of a wealthy gentleman but when a liaison leaves her expecting, she falls foul of the law that makes it illegal for a pregnant woman to appear on the stage and falls horrifyingly fast and hard. Rebecca Marshall is determined to secure her independence as an actress and spearheads a campaign to make women shareholders in the theatre and to have more female playwrights. Kirsty Besterman brings her to life with a lovely sense of self-confidence and idealism but she’s never allowed to forget she’s operating in a man’s world. And Susan Tracy’s Doll Common, watching over all as she sweeps and cleans around them but representative of the repressed generation before.
But though serious issues lie at the heart of Playhouse Creatures, there’s an irrepressible sense of humour about the whole enterprise that ensures it never becomes too heavy-going. Scenes of Restoration comedies are interspersed throughout which offer an amusing insight into the types of roles women were given, Gilbreath’s Betterton gives a hilarious masterclass in acting technique which uses times of the clock and there’s lots of earthy language and frankness about the breast-baring that is expected of them all. Epitomising this latter point is Nell Gwyn, a barmaid who forced her way into the theatre and then parlayed that fame into becoming one of the King’s most powerful mistresses. Charlotte Beaumont brings a perkily effervescent energy which is hugely amusing but it isn’t always abundantly clear what point De Angelis is trying to make by having Gwyn so central, as someone who considered the theatre as a stepping stone to other things rather than focusing on the greater artistic integrity, and theatrical impulses, of the others.
There’s a great marriage of material and venue here, Andrew D Edwards’ design neatly drops in painted backdrops and Richard Howell’s lighting works well with the fading natural light that seeps through the walls. And a mostly strong cast, led by Alexandra Gilbreath’s at times extraordinary performance, take us through an interesting period of history whose parallels to the state of play in the gender balance in contemporary theatres are all too strong. It is just a shame that De Angelis errs closer to historical biopic as her play progresses rather than exploring these issues more dramatically.