Playhouse Creatures (Lion & Unicorn Players)
Festival Hall, Petersfield
Thursday, November 2
Set in 1663 and written more than 20 years ago, Playhouse Creatures was brought bang up to date (presumably when the Lion & Unicorn Players were in rehearsal) by Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein scandal.
April de Angelis’s play focuses on the first women actors to tread the boards – and it soon becomes apparent that they are the mere playthings of drunken boorish men who prey on them in the worst way possible.
All their hopes and aspirations are gradually dashed by the mostly unseen patriarchy, from the theatre owner to the baying audience and the actresses’ various ‘protectors’.
King Charles II’s plaything Elizabeth Farley (Zoe Maddison) attempts a gruesome abortion in a bid to keep her thespian job, while the ageing Mary Betterton (Eileen Riddiford) suffers the indignity of being sacked by her own husband, the theatre manager, because the punters want to see younger flesh.
The feisty Rebecca Marshall (Kat Wootton) meets perhaps the cruellest end. Knowing that true independence for a woman could only be attained by financial security, she is on the verge of becoming a ‘partner’ in the theatre when she is decried as a witch by a male pursuer who has cynically tricked her in the past.
On the surface the young Nell Gwyn (Gemma Lynette) comes off best, being offered a house in a park with a coach and horses of her own – but, of course, her good fortune is only available while she keeps her male benefactor (the king again) happy.
It’s depressing that the feminist issues raised are still so relevant but the theme of female subjugation is powerfully dealt with in this clever play. There are also plenty of light-hearted moments. Mrs Betterton teaching Nell to act with a series of clockface poses stands out as a comedic highlight – but most of the best lines go to Doll Common, a cockney backstage helper brilliantly portrayed by Beryl Savill.
Whenever the atmosphere is getting a little too dark, this down-to-earth character arrives with a caustic put-down or a wry observation.
The action switches between the actors’ dressing room and the ‘real’ stage where they all overact superbly, and the set is cleverly arranged so that the audience’s attention moves seamlessly from one to the other with a subtle use of lighting.
It was a brave challenge for an am-dram group to take on a play with such weighty issues that switches delicately between forceful drama and laughter, but the Players pull it off with aplomb. There are powerful performances all around the stage – although the few men involved in this production are, for once, playing second fiddle to a female tour de force.
The play continues until Saturday.