GRADUATING students from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School have moved into the Tobacco Factory, transforming its open space to provide an authentically intimate look into London theatre in the 1660s, when women were first legally permitted to perform on stage.
April de Angelis’ funny, haunting and moving play chronicles the lives of the early “playhouse creatures” (as they were known) and points up the parallels that still exist in a profession where 70 per cent of audiences are female and more than double the characters on stage are male … and that’s without looking at film roles.
The theatre has always exerted its magnetic hold on performers, and the play starts as two women from very different backgrounds are trying to join Mr Betterton’s company. The famous actor manager’s wife is nearing the end of her stage career, her exaggerated stagecraft already dated. Hers is the responsibility of maintaining a decorum among a company of young women, as young as 16, in the presence of lords and even King Charles II, by whose decree female performers were allowed.
Based on real performers of the day, the play follows the fortunes of Mrs Farley, whose pregnancy forced her from the company, Mrs Marshall who thought her talent and popularity could prevail the lust of a lord, and the much better known Nell Gwynn, the orange seller who got the king.
Jenny Stephens’ production gives final chances to an exceptional group of student performers, many of whom were recently and memorably seen in The Trojan Women.
Hannah Bristow’s Mrs Betterton captures the poise, politics and poignancy of an actress who had performed male roles (in disguise) opposite her husband before “starring” as Lady Macbeth, Juliet and Desdemona, and is now relegated to minor roles.
Lily Donovan’s Doll tells the heartbreaking story of the bears in her father’s company before the theatricals took over the space, creating an indelible analogy for the true position of women on the stage.
Alais Lawson is the witty and ambitious Nell, and Lucy Bromilow the deluded Mrs Farley, with Eleanor Jackson as Mrs Marshall, no match for her noble vindictive former suitor. Josh Finan is cruelly arch as Wilmot, Whitney Kehinde his stage-struck lover and Corey Montague-Sholay the verbose Thomas Otway.
These are complex and highly developed characterisations, and the performances are full of promise for the actors.
Sets and costumes, designed by Natasha Mortimer and Fiona Rigler, as well as the evocative music directed by Pamela Rudge, bring the audience face to face with theatre history, in this stunning production, on at the Tobacco Factory until Saturday 18th June. See it if you can.
Photographs by Toby Farrow