By John Rigby
PLAYHOUSE Creatures (Millgate Arts Theatre, until February 9) is a thoughtful and sympathetic exploration into the lives and careers of the first female performers to appear on the London stage.
Set in the Restoration period of the 17th century, the play focuses on five women – real historical characters – and their theatrical fortunes in the bawdy, licentious times following Oliver Cromwell’s overturned Puritan regime.
The play has an all-female cast. Men only materialise as noises off, a chaotic mixture of whooping, heckling and a baying mob reaction that veers constantly between applause and jeering.
Theatre-going was tremendously popular among the aristocracy. That though was no guarantee of polite behaviour.
As one actress says: “Louts and lords, lords and louts; who could tell the difference?”
The separate life-stories of the actresses emerge as they compare notes in between performances, their moods shifting from gloomy pessimism to fragile elation, from insecure bickering to loyal solidarity.
They pin their hopes sometimes on their chances of a rendez-vous with a rich hanger-on, but these rarely go according to plan despite the opportunities to filch stage costumes so as to make a good impression.
Much of the time they are weighed down by dread – of pregnancy, public humiliation or the certainty of growing old and being replaced by younger, fresher rivals.
Carole Davies’s skilful direction does full justice to the complexities of the script. The performances never stiffen into caricature – the constant flux of their lives is sensitively conveyed.
The stage-set and costumes are further strengths of the production.
There is a strong cast, with no weak links. Liz Travis (Mistress Marshall) and Angela Bryan (Mistress Farley) give good versatile performances which cover a wide range of emotions from spitefulness and professional jealousy to wistful hope that somehow things will turn out right.
Anne Wright (Doll Common) is always convincing as the veteran backstage fixer who has seen it all, has no illusions about the realities of her trade, but has managed to survive with some of her fondness for the theatre still intact.
The two most demanding parts are taken by Kate Davies (Nell Gwyn) and Verity Mann.
Kate brings lots of freshness and naïve enthusiasm to her part as the stage-struck young girl who grabs all the applause and attention and finally manages to shack up with King Charles.
Verity brings out all the subtleties of the part of Mistress Betterton, the leading lady and theatre manager’s wife.
Altogether this is a praiseworthy production of an interesting play, well worth going out to see.
For more information or tickets, go online: www.saddleworthplayers.org.uk