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Playhouse Creatures

“Outside is boring but in here everything is magic!” – so Act 1 closes with these words from Mrs Barry, who wants to be a star of the stage and the age.

Set in the late 1660s, this play by April de Angelis is somewhat flexible with historical accuracy whilst focusing on the time, during the reign of Charles II, when women were first allowed to perform onstage. Thus, she brings together four of the best known actresses of that time to have them under one roof in the Playhouse Theatre. The best known of course is Nell Gwynn, along with Mrs Betterton, wife of the Theatre owner, Mrs Marshall and Mrs Farley. Their regular acting colleague, Doll Common, clearly has considerable experience of the stage and of being an actress, some eight or nine years into this ‘new age of freedom’ for women. Mrs Barry, having admired them from beyond the footlights, is keen, desperate even, to become part of this ‘magic’ and indeed she makes that progression in Act 2.

Acting was not seen as a respectable profession for women though and we see each of them having both their similar and their differing challenges. There was perhaps an assumption that actresses were sexually available either as mistresses or prostitutes and could be ‘spied on’ backstage in changing areas for a small fee! We see Nell initially as a keen to learn wannabee, finding herself alone onstage, making up a dance as a last resort. By well into this piece, she has become the Kings’ mistress, having access via ‘secret stairs’.

But not to dwell on the plot too much, as there is so much more to be admired in this AUB production by Third Year Students. This collaboration by the BA Acting students, the Costume and Performance Design Students and the Make-Up for Media and Performance Students gives so many of them the opportunity to parade their skills to an audience. This sell-out performance was justifiably very well received by an enthusiastic and supportive audience, predominantly made up of other students and it was a privilege to share their ‘world’ for the evening.

The programme sheet itself, cleverly designed in a Venn-diagram style, allows us to see the roles and contributions of so many other students into delivering this piece onto the stage; Costume, Set, Wardrobe, Hair & Make-up, all part of the Team. They can all be very proud of their contributions. The costume work, started in September, delivered about 25 major different costumes to the actresses, the detail level and authenticity to be admired. I understand that some were made by the students, others were skilfully sourced, collectively to deliver a superb set of results; the array of costume design pictures on display in the foyer provided a fascinating opportunity to study this work in more detail.

The impressive two-level set allowed us to view in the upper section the stage itself (from both sides of the beautifully authentic footlights) and two other performance spaces whilst below, the dressing room areas where much of these actresses spent so much time together helping, supporting, teaching, comforting, guiding and sympathising with one another. Onstage a mock sword-fight, some monologues, several extracts from their beloved ‘Bard’, these ladies giving their all in their world of ‘magic’ doing everything within their powers to be seen as legitimate actresses, whilst in truth so many affecting factors were beyond their own powers of control and they were viewed by many as just objects or ‘creatures’.

Nell, charmingly played by Ruby Fuller, gave us a Nell Gwynn who grew to realise and use the powers that her feminine ways and wiles afforded her, even at the highest level of Society, and is probably the best known of these famous actresses of that time. But this ensemble of six student actresses giving us six high-profile actresses of their day, each of those dealing with their own challenges, were a nicely balanced group, each excelling in their own ways. We see Mrs Betterton, touchingly played by Ruby Russell, giving perhaps what is to be her final performance as Lady M, then coming to terms with even her own husband casting (?) her talents aside in favour of younger upcoming actresses, to meet public demand (and desire).

Rachel O’Sullivan as Doll Common, the actress and the observer with the experience of having seen it all before, with some excellent quips and a care both for Nells’ welfare and for her acting skills, is perhaps both pessimistic and so much more worldly-wise than her colleagues. Her opening Prologue, likening the Playhouse now to its former use as a Bear-pit, describes the suffering of the Bears and not only how that suffering lingers on but how perhaps it now compares to the ‘Creatures’ that we now see inhabiting this Playhouse.

Naomi Kohn impressed in the emotional role of Mrs Farley, who falls pregnant and in due course that terminates her career on the Stage and we see her reduced to a sad and painful existence on the street instead. Kathryn Meneely, as Mrs Marshall, gave us a somewhat controlling, proud and experienced professional actress, perhaps a bit resentful of the younger talent, seemingly in control until she is duped by and falls foul of her lover, the Earl of Oxford, in a most demeaning way, showing again that these ladies were indeed just ‘creatures’ to be used and controlled by others.

Also impressive was Jordan Sky Finding in the role of a rather desperate Mrs Barry, so keen to become an actress, as she grows from being rather impressionable to a level confidence and assuredness from the very early stages of her career, as it then rapidly soars through Act 2 as she becomes a rather less emotional, more cynical character. Mrs Barry also found fame and favour in the highest levels of Society and Jordan embodies that character progression with ease.

Nick Monfard has the rather unrewarding roles of both Otway and the Earl of Rochester. As a sick and dying Rochester he can only helplessly watch Mrs Barry revel in counting the money she is now earning, rather than her caring about him. Not an easy nights’ work for Nick, portraying seemingly shallow characters alongside such a strong female cast; but his is a worthy contribution to this fine production.