Playhouse Creatures at Tobacco Factory Theatres

April De Angelis’ Playhouse Creatures follows the lives of five of the first English actresses. In the wake of a decree by Charles II around 1662 that women should be played by women on stage, our leading ladies tackle tragedy and comedy, well aware of how fragile their roles truly are. Arriving at the theatre, wondering as it’s my first ever if I should be that reviewer that takes hasty notes in the dark (I decided against it), I considered where a story with all of that background could go, or if it’s message would feel important and personal enough. Within ten minutes, women’s place in society is definitely clear. These women are objectified, dismissed, and even vomited on. The play is very quick to show us that while being an actress is a much-coveted role, there is still no respect. Nell (Alaїs Lawson), despite being the newcomer, is actually most aware of this, relishing in her role as comic relief. She is happy to be topless, as long as she gets a few jokes.

All of the actresses represent a yearning, present in every line, for more than what they have been given: veteran Mrs Betterton (Hannah Bristow) is the wife of the theatre manager, who longs to play the great male roles, finding the female equivalents lacking. Mrs Marshall (Eleanor Jackson) would rather write her own tragic heroine and ultimately decide her own fate for once.

The set design is intimate and creative with a large part of the play taking part in the actresses’ changing room. The use of the space keeps it private, and as part of the audience I felt equally part of their group, invited, and yet also a voyeur. The incense burning throughout the theatre added to that closeness; like old perfume and cigarette smoke. I found the opening scene particularly enchanting, Doll’s (Lily Donovan) rambling and nostalgic monologue takes centre stage in a purple haze while the rest of the cast slowly shift and change behind, faint memories, snapshots of the past, slipping through Doll’s fingers. While it looks beautiful, it never outshines the acting. The Bristol Old Vic Theatre School has been responsible for some of the greats; and you could definitely feel that talent from the stage during Playhouse Creatures. With Nell’s newness comes a savviness, ever-present even in the saddest parts; whereas Whitney Kehinde’s desperate ingénue Mrs Barry is played with clumsy melodrama that grows into self-assured confidence. Lucy Bromilow’s Mrs Farley veers wildly between seductive and desperate, and while I was not particularly interested in her at intermission, her scenes in the latter half of the play were some that stuck with me the most. Eleanor Jackson gets some of the loudest moments in the show, screaming at hecklers as Mrs Marshall, but it is in her quiet moments that I was most drawn to her. She wonderfully reacts to the scene without ever stealing too much focus. Even when part of the scene, Doll never truly stops narrating, punctuating scenes with crass one-liners that break the tension just enough without losing the tone. Our one completely fictional character is humble and brash. She never really has a narrative of her own, instead living and breathing everyone else’s. My favourite scenes of hers were those opposite Mrs Betterton; slowly transitioning from maid to carer, she takes Mrs Betterton’s fate with her.

The women chewed up and spat out the play, but were beautifully supported and challenged by a lecherous Earl of Rochester (Josh Finan) and an adorably clueless and pretentious Otway (Corey Montague-Sholay). Josh Finan was delightfully cruel at times and pitifully overwrought at others, his supporting role was a great character for the women to bounce off of. For me though, and for my lovely theatre date, Hannah Bristow’s Mrs Betterton was what we spoke about the most after we left. She was magical. She was everything she needed to be, from hamming up Shakespeare like a bad panto, to quietly mourning her own youth and career, she was completely wonderful and affecting. Her fall throughout the second half was tragic, culminating in a really beautiful interpretation of Macbeth that reflects her own descent. She brought a dignity and loftiness to Mrs Betterton that was equal parts humorous and heart breaking, and was able to project the characters age and aging subtly and poignantly, which was a big ask from someone so young.

As I said, I wasn’t sure how much the play would reach me because the subject matter felt a little removed. I could not have been more wrong. The idea of actresses’ (and on a broader scale, women) having to define their own self in a world where men are trying to reduce them feels as true and real now as it did then. Even if you’re not about that message, the play is funny enough that you’ll at least chuckle in parts. More than any of that though, it just felt like an opportunity to watch a bunch of actors that might just be (and certainly have the potential to be) unstoppable.

Playhouse Creatures is on at the Tobacco Factory Theatres until the 18th June.

Review by Josie Sutton

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