Playhouse Creatures – Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol ****

PlayhouseCreatures_NEW

So it’s that time of year again where thoughts turn to beer gardens, barbeques and festivals, and where a new set of graduating students from theatre schools up and down the land make their first tentative steps into the profession. Before they head off into the sunset, some of Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre Schools students sign off with April De Angelis’ Playhouse Creatures, a funny, rollicking and poignant backstage look at the first women to take to the stage.

De Angelis has placed women at the heart of her work across her career, from reclaiming the first pornographic novel Fanny Hill to tricky 21st Century mother-daughter relationships in Jumpy. The swinging 1660s and the rising of aesthete Charles II to the throne, his reopening of playhouses and passing of bills allowing women performers on to the stage should have been cause for celebrations. De Angelis’ play showed that things may (inevitably) not been as simple for the women who took him up on this.

A backstage drama that showcases some of the first women to step upon the stage it stands up both as an interesting biographical work and is another in a long list of plays that are in thrall to the backstage machinations of the stage that has stretched from Sheridan through Stoppard and Frayn and even now resides in West End hit The Play That Goes Wrong.

Each of the five actresses hovers on the precipice of fame and success or failure and destitution. It may be the 1660s but De Angelis cleverly asks has much really changed in the actresses’ lot, where the leading actress of her day Mrs Betterton (Hannah Bristow) finds herself sacked by her own husband as she loses a battle with age and a raucous (male) crowd who prefer the legs of a younger actress and a style that is evolving away from the declamatory that she preaches. Meanwhile, Lucy Bromilow’s Elizabeth Farley finds herself tuft out of the company and on to the streets when she finds herself pregnant out-of-wedlock. Men continue to be central to their lives even as a (mostly) unseen presence, Eleanor Jackson’s Rebecca Marshall remains the most prominent actress of her time until she is cast away from being the King’s mistress in favour of the rags-to-riches orange seller Nell Gwynn (Alais Lawson).

In this the second version of the play, De Angelis allows input from two men (the original was an all female affair) but they don’t really add much more to the tale, even though Corey Montague-Sholay as the blustery playwright Otway and Josh Finan as the rakish Earl of Rochester, providing Strasberg-like training to Whitney Kehinde’s new generation of actress, both more than hold their own. Best of all is Lily Donovan’s Doll who with her earthly voice and permanently dazed expressions conveys both the silliness and wonderment of a life upon the stage.

It is hustled along in a little over two hours by director Jenny Stephens, who has some fun playing with the acting styles of the day, while Natasha Mortimer’s candle-flecked set and Fiona Rigler’s elegant costume design both give a sense of the theatre in the 1660s. Stars of the future are almost impossible to predict but, in this showing, it is clear yet again that Bristol Old Vic has given these actors a chance to springboard to the next level.

Runs until 18 June 2016 | Image: Contributed

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