Historical delight of the boards
Pioneering ladies of the footlights: (from left to right): Mrs Marshall (Marion Pritchett), Nell Gwyn (Laura Chinn), Mrs Betterton (Dee White), and Mrs Farley (Sandra Haynes)
Highbury Theatre Centre
NIGEL HIGGS has
come up with a studio production that is a little charmer. The occasion
is a play in which author April de Angelis takes a thought-provoking,
often mischievous, look at the experiences of the first actresses to
grace the English stage – and not for a moment is there a suggestion
that it is not going to work.
It takes five actresses to tell the 17th-Centry
story, of whom two – Claire Armstrong Mills and Laura Chinn – are a
joy in the most rewarding of the parts on offer, with Dee White,
Sandy Haynes and Marion Pritchett not putting a foot wrong in providing
the essential support that guarantees the rounded view which results.
We get a shot of Shakespeare and Restoration
comedy; see the moment when Mrs Marshall (Marion Pritchett) announces
that she’s a novelty and decides it’s time for actresses to be paid for
their work; and when Mrs Farley (Sandy Haynes) finds herself led by
prostitution into a failed abortion.
And there’s the matter-of-fact honesty of the
tiny Doll Common (Claire Armstrong Mills), all perky impishness in
black, with an adopted rocky gait, who looks back at her own career:
“I’m usually the dead one under the cloak, or else I’m sweeping.”
Claire Armstrong Mills (Doll Common) and Laura Chinn (Nell Gwyn) drinking to the tale of Britain's first actresses
She is just as forthcoming over her upbringing:
“Rural experience? Me mum kept an ۥen.”
And she confides (a) that she “can’t do cries” – “I show meself up”; and
(b) that the chamber pot was emptied on Tuesday and it’s now Friday.
Indeed, she has an abundance of memorable
moments. She never lets one escape and she recalls, “I did parts for
years. I did ۥem so long, I forgot I
There’s the moment of enquiry when the playhouse
is described as a pit of pestilence: “Do they fornicate?” “Nah. Say
poetry and walk about.”
Laura Chinn is the good-hearted Nell Gwyn, she of
the daunting décolletage and assorted oranges; joyous flamboyance
allied to faith in the staying power of her underpinnings.
It’s earthy, unafraid of some lively language and
brimming with spirit. There’s pride, too, as when Dee White (Mrs
Betterton – she who had “tasted the forbidden fruit” by anticipating the
Royal decree of Charles II that legitimised the work of actresses –
brings an air of dignity to her summation of her life.
This is a production, interestingly played in
bare feet, which flows like a warmed icicle – but, on one occasion in
particular, which also demonstrates that it is not afraid of silences.
Splendid stuff! To 22-10-11.