By Joe McNeice
It seems that in recent times, contemporary plays by young writers have regularly occupied The Barn’s weekend slots. Whilst there is a lot of merit in seeing current texts performed with the youthful charge of university students taking on these roles, the change in tempo offered up by Playhouse Creatures, an historical comedy by April de Angelis and this weekend’s DramaSoc production, was a rare treat that far too seldom gets a look-in. It might be true that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but to simply pin the production’s successes on the fact that plays of this kind are a bit of a rarity in The Barn would be to greatly undermine the evident hard work that has been poured into this show by both prod team and cast and which made the experience of watching it such a pleasure.
In a recent article for WhatsOnStage, Matt Trueman shines a light on the cliché pitfalls of shows about show-business, asserting, “nothing sets the eyes rolling like theatre about theatre. It’s seen, in some quarters, as the ultimate self-indulgence: nothing but navel-gazing or a luvvies’ love-in.” The Barn’s Playhouse Creatures provides the perfect counter-argument to these criticisms and manages to escape the potential follies of having actors act as actors by using the playhouse as a specific setting to expose the greater injustices of misogyny in the industry and in Restoration England at large. Of course this is not an issue that has gone away in the 348 years since the play is set, and this historical exposé is particularly timely in the wake of last week’s Harvey Weinstein allegations.
Evie Jones’ direction is practical and economic in its approach to staging, allowing the actors to take centre stage without relying on lavish set, costumes or props to create the impact for them. That’s not to say that the set design and costume aren’t impressive. In an interesting move by costume designer Hannah Frogett, the cast are dressed in period underwear alluding to the way in which the lecherous male society looked at female actors in the late 1600s. With the playhouse’s wooden stage as the main piece of scenic focus (complete with working golden shell footlights), the image is completed with a red velvet proscenium curtain and gorgeous stage backdrops painted by Lucy Poulton.
Within this clear vision of a playhouse world, the all-female cast thrives at bringing to life the real struggles faced by pioneering actresses in 17th Century London. Doll Common, played by Keira MacAlister, welcomes the audience into the world of the play in a melancholy reflection of the aforementioned struggles, before showing off her ability to earn laughs with her bawdy cynicism and excellent comic timing. Anna Hale as Mrs Farley and Martha Owen as Mrs Marshall both offer delightfully colourful, and at times heart-wrenching, performances of women whose lives are completely at the mercy of the men around them. Tatiana Penfold delights in her Barn debut as the famous young theatrical wannabe, Nell Gwyn. Tatiana brings Nell to life with a great awareness of the injustices of the time period and paints a portrait of a shrewd young woman who will do whatever it takes to achieve her goals. The greatest plaudits for performance must however be given to Ruby Sevink-Johnston, also making her Barn debut, as the older thespian, Mrs Betterton. Ruby not only delivers in her numerous comic moments, but also creates a wry sensitivity in the more tender instances of sadness in the second act. A well-judged performance, facilitated by Evie Jones’s careful direction of the ageing theatrical pioneer, adds more poignancy than expected to April de Angelis’ otherwise witty text.
Proving that Playhouse Creatures is more than just a comic reflection on the history of women in theatre, this weekend’s DramaSoc offering is a carefully considered production and a real pleasure for its audiences. It has been a long time since I’ve seen a show this engaging and unexpectedly political staged in The Barn. Credits must be given to all involved for executing a challenging and relevant play with such aplomb.