The setting first: the five actresses on stage are depicting a precise historical period in restoration theatre when the first actresses were allowed on stage. We are privy to the dressing room gossip, the Vanity Fair / Hello pretensions, of the first British women who prostituted themselves to theatre. We see a rag-to-riches story, a riches-to-rags one, and the classic drama of the star past her prime. The first half sets the scene, and focuses on a certain Nell’s (Rose Pardo Roques) vertiginous rise to the top and her subsequent rapport with the actresses, whilst the second half, more serious in tone, shows what becomes of each character. They all end up in some sort plight that I could feel no pity for since the character, actor and personage, was underdeveloped and two-dimensional.
Most of all there seemed to be problems with the casting. The stalwart actress Mrs Betterton (Jo Noble) seems a capable actress as she delivers monologues by Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra in a (hopefully) hammed Shakespearean manner and yet she was too unengaged with the other actresses. Two of the three younger actresses on the other hand, Nell and Doll (Margaret Bateman), were unfortunately found wanting in the conveying of the subtler emotions and thus they come across as two theatre clowns, commanding little of our sympathy. More refined was the performance of Rose McPhilemy, who showed impressive versatility in portraying the riches to rags actress. However all in all the actresses just didn’t seem to gel with each other; no fleeting lifelike glances, no gestures beyond the affected… and that’s a shame, since you can make a great performance out of a shoddy play if the cast play well off each other.
Yet this is perhaps harsh. It was really the writing that was to blame. Absolutely zero dramatic tension, a poor depiction of the historical setting, and a script somewhere (yet nowhere) between panto and a play of serious ideas. The end product made me feel like I was reading a very boring pop-up book on restoration theatre women’s acting.
As for the directing, we are given little perspective of why these are exactly “creatures” to the “playhouse” and the director might, as in previous productions, put more emphasis on the objectifying of the young actresses. The stage design was Spartan, (critics usually have a field day interpreting such sets), but personally I was looking for something more than an old basket and a pub sign. Finally the lighting effects were too ambitious: audience lighting was being flicked on and off like it was some sort of Jean-Michel Jarre concert.
This, unfortunately, is not a play to be recommended. Perhaps the OFS should stick to its repertoire of classic, well-written plays.