The Divine Mrs S at Hampstead Theatre – review

April De Angelis’ backstage comedy runs until 27 April

Anushka Chakravarti, Rachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan in a scene from The Divine Mrs S at Hampstead Theatre
Anushka Chakravarti, Rachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan in The Divine Mrs S, © Johan Persson

One way of putting the actor’s job: finding the harmonies and gaps between what the audience needs, and what the actor themselves does. And then there’s other actors, and other audiences – bozhe moi, it’s a wonder any work gets put on at all. April De Angelis’s appealing comedy The Divine Mrs S at the Hampstead Theatre takes the iconic 18th-century actor Sarah Siddons as its centre, and warms us with the friction generated when these theatrical needs rub up against each other.

De Angelis writes Siddons as an actor more than attuned to her age, forced to bear up under its inconsistencies. Her good work is threatened on all sides by professional frustration and personal heartbreak: trapped playing an interminable grieving mother part, as she mourns a real-life daughter herself. Even in these tawdry roles, or when playing Shakespearean heroine to her brother-manager’s braying heroes, she’s the beloved one. And women especially – even the censors themselves – see her as embodying something just past their reach, for now. She ignites them. It’s a power she’s aware of and puts to use: she has a dangerous pull over both the censor’s wife (Sadie Shimmin, playing her as a Mary Whitehouse figure calling all the shots) aching to be convinced by Siddons to give each play a licence to go on, and her unhappily married daughter Clara, both devoted fans.

Against Kez Brotherston’s backstage dream of a set, with its gaslamps and rather restrained cream costumes, Siddons (Rachael Stirling) does battle with her brother John Philip Kemble (a very funny Dominic Rowan) over his Theatre Royal Drury Lane’s casting and programming. He’s interminable, a pathetic blowhard capable only of volume, jealous of his sister’s diva-like status. Stirling herself is fiery, wistful and wry, a calm centre for the whirling around her, setting everyone else to her pace. Her Siddons feels everything – it’s how she’s able to act, to her brother’s befuddlement – and even if she charges herself with reacting to things with a perfect implacability, reading the stage directions for her life with a beatific smile (Siddons is a third-person character she’s aware of constructing, De Angelis implies), she undercuts them immediately afterwards with a scream or a snort.

Siddons is accompanied by an earnest and loyal maid and backstage hand, Patti (Anushka Chakravarti in utterly commanding adorable and bubbly force), and surrounded by an extremely quick-changing cast of grinning critics, leering portraitists, lazy actors. Shimmin, a pleasingly chewy Gareth Snook and Eva Feiler do great business in these roles with some cheerfully dodgy accents. Like a few other Hampstead Downstairs shows, it feels a little longer than it needs to be, and its second half broader in its humour, with less focus to its careening plotlines than you’d expect.

Director Anna Mackmin keeps things moving at a great clap, and harnesses the fun De Angelis is having with her language. It’s a breathless, slightly bellowing world, which trembles with feathers in hat.

Siddons’ attempts to find roles equal to her as she grows in experience and grief provide the plot: a young, nervy Joanna Baillie (Feiler) is prevailed upon as a possible and feminist playwriting powerhouse, to Kemble’s disgust. What about the moral tide which seeing independent women characters might cause among the country’s tightly oppressed, highly impressionable, female audience?

De Angelis writes Siddons as sometimes in control of her radicalising power, but for the most part, she thinks of her career and of finding a way to translate her emotional depth into her work. She might show a false modesty at times, because her genius is real. The Divine Mrs S’ rhythm is enveloping, with theatregoer jokes to charm throughout, and though there’s a brief battle between tones towards the end, Siddons, her life and enduring, existential questions about what to play and how to play it are done loving justice.

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The Divine Mrs S

Final performance: 27 April 2024