Saturday, September 26, 2015

Playhouse Creatures (Bruiser Theatre Company, touring until 16 Oct)

Forget 1690! The important date in English theatre was 1660 when female actresses were welcomed back on stage and English theatres reopened after Puritan repression. Even the King, Charles II, patronised the Restoration comedies and satirical productions.

No longer did young boys have to play female characters. Instead old plays were adapted and new plays created to take advantage of female participation … and the female form. Dressing up in men’s breeches showed off shapely legs accompanied with increasingly risqué dialogue and sexual objectification.

Playhouse Creatures is a 1993 play by April De Angelis which examines the world of 17th century theatre from the perspective of pioneer actresses working in “the den of defilement, the pit of pestilence”.

Exposing the behind the scenes nature of the docu-drama, Bruiser’s staging has no wings, and the five actresses remain on stage throughout the two act show, pulling on dresses and breeches over their corsets while leaning against the huge overlapping gilded proscenium arches that make up the set. It’s as if the modern day audience has regressed three hundred or more years and are once again paying to voyeuristically sneak around to peep into the dressing rooms.

Jo Donnelly plays Mrs Betterton, an experienced actress keen to coach new talent in the ways of the theatre. She spent years supporting her actor husband before getting the opportunity to tread the boards herself. London audiences, however, want to leer at younger actresses and she is now exiting stage left towards the twilight of her career.

Nell Gwyn (played by Claire Burns) is also based on a historical character. Originally a cockney fruit seller, Nell inveigles her way into the Playhouse’s company where the amateur catches the eye of Charles II and becomes his mistress. Grandmother figure Doll Common (Roma Tomelty) feeds much-needed context to the audience and gets some of the best laughs as the older actress slaves for her younger colleagues and performs only minor roles.

Mrs Farley (Amy Molloy) is a prim preacher’s daughter and applies her classical education to her new wilder life in the theatre before a bump in her career path changes her fate. Normally the centre of attention in recent local productions, Roisin Gallagher’s portrayal of Mrs Marshall has to take a back seat and is overshadowed in the script by Mrs Betterton and Nell Gwyn.

Part soap opera, part gender equality lesson, the actresses push for further rights and seek to be shareholders in the Playhouse company while confronting the harsh realities of their profession.

If you come to the play cold, it takes the first ten minutes of De Angelis’ play before the various scenes reveal a plot. Understanding wasn’t always assisted by Matthew Reeve’s crashing and chaotic soundtrack that accompanies much of the action and at times threatens to drown out some dialogue.

Expect heaving bosoms, Cockney accents, dramatic dying, superb soliloquies, and ancient vulgarities in this oddly-written play that fails to lace up as tight as its corset costumes despite the good choreography, Lisa May’s direction and important history.

Bruiser Theatre Company’s production has been running in The MAC this week (finishes Saturday 26) and tours around regional theatres until mid-October. Full details of dates and venues can be found on Bruiser’s website.

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