“BOYS will be boys, the saying goes, but boys would be girls too in England’s theatre companies until Charles II’s artistic sensibility put an end to the stage being no place for a woman.
You will recall the shenanigans Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola De Lesseps in Shakespeare In Love and the great lengths (of material) to which she went to disguise her female status.
April de Angelis’s Playhouse Creatures takes up the story in 1670, the year of the Royal decree that actresses were allowed to perform on the English stage for the first time.
Brashly humorous, provocative, even truculent, but intelligent, passionately feminine and proto-feminist too, Playhouse Creatures forms the first production by Hedgepig, a company set up by two young leading lights of York’s theatre scene, Andy Curry and his wife Gemma Sharp.
Gemma first read the play ten years ago, falling in love with its portrait of the “dangerous, hilarious and tragic lives” the first actresses led. “The strong parallels with the experience of all actresses struck a chord,” she says in a telling comment that would suggest theatre and life in general is still not a level playing field for women.
Well, a man – Andy Curry – does direct Hedgepig’s debut, but Playhouse Creatures has an all-female cast, albeit that de Angelis’s real-life characters are very much answerable to men in this dark new world of Restoration theatre.
Through the experiences of Nell Gwyn (Anna Rose James), Mrs Rebecca Marshall (Roxanna Klimaszewska) and Mrs Elizabeth Farley (Gemma Sharp) and two older women, Mrs Mary Betterton (Lindsay Smith) and Doll Common (Barbara Miller), de Angelis conveys a world of trials, inequalities, restrictions, unwanted pregnancy, prostitution, ruthless rivalries, public preconceptions and (male) prejudices.
In Shakespeare’s time rotten fruit would be thrown at performers in a rotten production, but Mrs Rebecca Marshall went through worse: the Earl of Oxford smeared excrement in her hair.
Such incidental details add to the considerable clout of de Angelis’s superb script, brought to life by Curry’s astute direction, complemented by the soundscapes and original music of Alexander King and the lighting design (including candlelight) of Kelli Zezulka. Julia Smith’s corset-dominated costume designs and Chloe Furze’s make-up, both pale and exaggerated, are vital components too.
Curry’s cast could not be better chosen. James is outstanding as Nell, an unstoppable force of nature, bringing comic timing, cheek and determination to a young woman who has more wiles than worldliness, like today’s talent show ingénues.
The desperation for survival is personified by Klimaszewska’s feisty Mrs Marshall and Sharp’s troubled Mrs Farley “in a world more interested in glamour than ability”, as the programme notes put it.
Ageing is a key strand too, and while Miller’s phlegmatic Doll Common just gets on with it, Smith’s Mrs Betterton is particularly affecting in coming to terms with her career closing in on her.
Playhouse Creatures is a mightily impressive start for Hedgepig in a production as memorable as that company name.”
By Charles Hutchinson, York Press