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The Celebrated Mrs Inchbald (Bury St Edmunds)

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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Being a writer in Georgian society was no easy matter if you were a woman. A family support network helped. Both Fanny Burney and Jane Austen had that. If you were not only female but an actress and a widow, the path to production and publication was even rougher. An actress was presumed to be of loose morals, until she had proved otherwise. A widow was also fair game.

Elizabeth Inchbald is the house muse for the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal and Katie Bonna has made a play of her life which she also performs. Inchbald's own theatrical career was divided between acting in the provinces and London where, after the death of her much-older actor husband, she began to write her own plays and to adapt French and German dramas to suit the English taste as well as novels. Wooed by many men, not always with marriage in mind, she remained independent, a blameless widow respected for her talent and her wit by some of the most forward thinkers of the day.

It's a lot to cram into a one-hour monologue, and Bonna whisks us through it at breakneck speed. You need to be able to fill in the gaps from your own knowledge not to be left behind as Mrs Inchbald reminisces about the past, her memory stimulated by the not-in-sequence pages of a possible autobiography and her correspondence. Bonna plays the men who percolated through Inchbald's life in brief exchanges which don't always leave a sufficient impression.

The freezing-out episode when William Goodwin has arranged for Mary Wollstonecraft to share a box with Inchbald provides one of the best sequences. Bonna treats her heroine with affection but seems afraid to show more than the externals of an existence which – from a distance of 200 years – seems to have been extremely skilfully manipulated. Both actress-writers are clever, but the one doesn't quite succeed in brining the other back to life.


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