Playhouse Creatures by April de Angelis is a show played by five actresses playing five actresses. Directed by Charlotte Vickers, the point of the performance seemed to be performing performance. Therefore, any further comments on the play are simultaneously comments on the acting and the acting of acting. Phew.
But all this meta-ness only augments the moving story already present. This play is funny, moving, and sad. It shows five pioneering women who took to the stage after Charles II’s legalising decree in 1660, and their struggles to be taken seriously. The famous Nell Gwynn (Gwenno Jones) was a sixteen-year-old girl who aspired to the theatre, but sold oranges for a living. Bribing the young actress Mrs Farley (Lydie Sheehan) to teach her a poem, she managed to begin acting for the Betterton Playhouse, with other historical characters Mary Betterton (Amy Perkis) and Rebecca Marshall (Charlotte Cohen), and the fictional Doll Common (Hannah Marsters). Thus begins the play’s struggle to differentiate the ‘real’ from the performed, the forced from the free.
Throughout the drama, these women fought to gain independence, be it financial, intellectual, or moral. At the time, actresses were revered for their youth and beauty, and in this way were treated as objects. Playhouse Creatures portrays the glorious heydays of fame, and the cruel twists of fates that render it all obsolete – a bitter suitor, a pregnancy, or old age. Yet despite the incessant clashes with oppression, the women seem to have fun, and the audience has fun too. There are some stellar exchanges of insults throughout the play, and a brilliant scene of voodoo witchcraft. The flamboyance of the characters and their characters makes for entertainment upon entertainment.
The set is minimalist, and changes very little as the action moves from stage to ‘backstage’. Throughout the play, the director’s brought in little touches that bring it to a new level – I was especially taken with Doll’s monotone lines of “a noise is heard offstage”. If there were a couple of fumbled lines and if the dragging of the props made too much noise, it just served as a reiteration of the themes.
The actresses themselves (the ‘real life’ ones) were absolutely superb – Amy Perkis played a nuanced, heartrending Mrs Betterton and Gwenno Jones fully captured the fiery spirit of Nell Gwynn. Charlotte Cohen, Hannah Marsters and Lydie Sheehan also merit praise for general excellence, as this play is one that does lead to an appreciation for the “calling” of acting.
Yet there is a sense that my enjoyment was also part of the contrived charms of the characters – that they were forced to make us enjoy ourselves. No matter how much they wanted to believe in their powers as famous actresses, it didn’t change the coldness with which the world treated them when they lost their initial lustre. No matter how much they tried to choose their own paths, they were again and again driven into the perceived roles of actresses. No matter what they did, they were trapped in the world of Betterton Playhouse/ black box Burton Taylor.
Unfortunately, unlike the playhouse creatures, Playhouse Creatures won’t stay in the theatre forever – I highly recommend seeing it while it’s there.
‘Playhouse Creatures’ will be at the BT this Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm.