April de Angelis' Playhouse Creatures explores the lives and work of the first English actresses in 1660s London. During the course of a riveting two hours, we watch the wheel of fortune turn for each of the actresses as they make their own mark in The King's Company, and a more lasting contribution to theatre history.
The actresses have much to endure, on-stage and off. Nell Gwyn fluffs her lines and faces a baying crowd. Mrs Marshall insults the Earl of Oxford and is rewarded with a hairful of shit. The women suffer shameful double-standards within the company; cooped up together in a single dressing-room and making do by repairing old costumes, while actor/manager Mr Betterton has a new one 'with feathers' delivered.
Although they concede that the theatre is 'a foul place', there is never any doubt in these women's minds that it is where they want to be. After her stage debut, Nell seems to forget the savagery of the audience, remembering only their 'faces like warm moons smiling at me.' Mrs Barry explains that 'the world outside is grey and boring but here everything is different ... magic ... magic.'
The press notes describe Playhouse Creatures as 'a tragi-comic burlesque' and it's a tribute to the fine writing and powerful acting that we are moved from one pole of emotion to another. Sheila Gish is outstanding as Mrs Betterton, who devotes her life to the company but is ill-rewarded. Saskia Reeves is also in strong form as Mrs Farley, a preacher's daughter who becomes one of the theatre's leading lights but comes to a decidedly sour end. Liz Smith's Doll Common does not go through such extremes of experience herself but Smith's performance is an expert one which binds the weave of the play together. There can be few actresses currently on the stage with a better sense of timing.
Playhouse Creatures has much to say about women's roles in the theatre and beyond. Although it is set in the seventeenth century and makes some very specific observations of that time, it also raises questions about sexual equality that prevail as we approach the millennium. But rest assured that these debates arise through the fully-fleshed characterisation achieved by the writer and performers.
Playhouses Creatures gives you everything you want from a night at the theatre. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll even think!
Justin Somper, September 1997