In the second half of the 17th century, the theatres - well, two of them, for the moment - have reopened after their 18-year closure under Cromwell. Doll Common, candle-lit, rises from one of the whizzo new trapdoor contraptions to explain that, in her father's time, this was a bear-pit. It's a reference to she returns at the end when she reveals how the creature turned on its master.
In Playhouse Creatures, the beasts in question are of a different breed - women, banned from English stages until Charles II opened them up again in 1660. And April De Angelis plays fast and loose with history in her depiction of them, pitching half a dozen famous actresses of the day together into the company of Thomas Betterton. The great actor-manager makes no appearance himself; his grande dame wife acts as his conduit and embodies the old school of actress, schooled in the appropriate angles of the head for every emotion and ever subservient to the lead male whose foil she is.
But whilst Mrs Betterton queens it over the ladies' dressing room, the younger generation - Nell Gwyn, Elizabeth Farley and Rebecca Marshall - are already taking over, substituting personality and overt sexuality for thespian disciplines. What they have to sell, up to and frequently including their bodies, brings in the punters like never before. Not slow in recognising their rights, they start demanding shares in the company, foretelling the day when women would even write plays!
In John Tiffany's well modulated, if slightly muted, production, the action is set on a revolve within a severely rectangular proscenium, with a see-through mirror screen bisecting forestage and backstage areas. This spartan design by Neil Warmington, sparely lit by Natasha Chivers, reminds us of the puritanical era from which Restoration theatre was then only just emerging.
Susan Wooldridge's Mrs Betterton deftly avoids the temptation to wallow in grandness and manifests a credible warmth towards the youngsters who threaten to usurp her position; and her quiet dignity when she is indeed displaced is unsentimental and genuinely moving. Nell Gwyn is the pick of the younger roles, and Abby Ford - bawdy, brash, swaggering and funny - gives her the sort of energy and pace that keeps De Angelis' occasionally pedantic script afloat.
Joanne Froggatt, a television actress of obvious talent, is somewhat overwhelmed in the theatrical environment and turns in a fragile and rather insipid performance as Elizabeth Farley, the preacher's daughter-turned-actress who falls pregnant and is abandoned by all. Sandra Voe's Doll Common, for reasons I may have missed, is a ragged and filthy old hag working as dresser to Mrs Betterton - it's a lively, often comic, portrayal, but strangely puzzling.
Whether De Angelis gets close to the truth about the theatrical emancipation of women is open to question. There's clearly much telescoping and, one suspects, wholesale over-simplification. What emerges is nonetheless a fascinating tale of a largely neglected period in English theatre history.
- Ian Watson