PLAYHOUSE CREATURES
Old Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 15 September, 1997

There are some roles which could best be described in a list of dramatis personae by the simple words "Liz Smith". One such is Doll Common in April de Angelis's Playhouse Creatures; having seen Smith in the part, I find it impossible to imagine any other actress playing this skivvy-cum-historical throwback in a Restoration playhouse, and also acting as a kind of chorus introducing events to the audience. Her tone and timing put the perfect amount of spin on de Angelis's wry, sometimes anachronistic lines concerning the first actresses on the English stage.

Playhouse Creatures, revised and expanded from its original 1993 version to include Elizabeth Barry, the Earl of Rochester and Thomas Otway, sketches in the career curves of several female players: Elizabeth Farley, her career cut short by pregnancy; Rebecca Marshall, undone by the enmity of a courtier to whose desires she proved insufficiently pliant; Nell Gwyn, ascending thanks to a fortuitous combination of determined ambition, skill and luck from selling oranges via the stage to Charles II's bedchamber; and Mary Betterton, whose ultimate handicap was simply that she had aged out of her appeal. We now also see Mrs Barry climbing to prominence almost literally on the corpse of Rochester (Dominic Rowan, giving a fine reading of urbane dissolution).

Although her overall concern is with a number of women trying to do full justice to their individual potentials in a profession which requires them merely to be objects (whether to the audience in general or to particular spectators in private), de Angelis's principal tone is comic; camaraderies and rivalries alike are portrayed sardonically under Lynne Parker's adept direction. Sheila Gish as Mrs Betterton instructs Nell Gwyn on the positioning of the head as on a clock-face to signify emotions (six-thirty for anger and revenge, etc.) and with smiling diplomacy demands extensive rewrites from Otway; Jo McInnes' Nell barges her way to the top with cheefrul rumbustiousness, while Rachel Power as Mrs Marshall manages as often as not to retain a degree of affability even in the face of the vendetta of the Earl of Oxford.

When poignancy does arise, it is stronger for the contrast. Mrs Farley (Saskia Reeves), some months after being forced to leave the company, reappears as a prostitute and, in a moment of lacerating pathos, mumbles plaintively, "Twopence... I'll do anything... you can punch me... look..." as she shows her bruises; Gish's Mrs Betterton arouses pity not by her final rendition of Lady Macbeth's mad speech, but by the defeated tone of her subsequent self-deprecating dismissal, "No, I'm not mad I'm just eccentric." Playhouse Creatures is one of the successes of the Peter Hall Company's new (or nearly-new) plays strand under Dominic Dromgoole, and it is a great pity that the sale of The Old Vic will bring such (for the West End) innovative programming to a close.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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