by April de Angelis

A bear and a woman with a fan

Tue 4 - Sat 8 April 2017 at 7.30pm
The Playhouse Theatre, Clare Street, Northampton NN1 3JA

Review: 'Beautifully costumed and well-staged'

John Myhill | Masque Theatre member

'Wonderful moments' was one comment I saw, and I must agree. Five strong performances by five talented women (and directed by another). beautifully costumed and well staged in a very small space which somehow felt larger ‐ though I do have a “but". which is the play itself.

The tone was set by a playful introduction from a suitably costumed director, alerting us to the Restoration mind-set needed to appreciate what was to come. Having not read the programme before curtain up, I was confused about the opening scene (a “mysterious otherworldly place", I later found) and that may be what threw me off balance.

The play is almost revue‐like. switching between scenes from (mostly) real plays in nicely overdone Restoration style and realistic backstage scenes both comic and tragic from the lives of the first actresses allowed legally on the British stage.

The two didn‘t always knit together into a whole, and the framing device wasn't quite strong enough, but the performances helped overcome any doubts.

Extraordinary hair

Sue Whyte as Doll Common gave a confident and natural performance that helped earth the play, with a matter of fact attitude and some nice asides.

April Pardoe as Rebecca Marshall stole a lot of show with her beautifully moderated switches between elegant actress and furious foul-mouthed ranter, especially when one rant seemed directed straight at me!

Ella Broughton's Nell was nicely comic, though sometimes the cockney chirpiness felt a little forced. and I'd have liked to see more of a character arc for her; again an issue with the play. She was, however, a joy to watch in the performance scenes.

Julia Langley‘s Elizabeth Farley was also well played but I‘d have liked more contrast between her innocent (religious) beginnings and her world-weary older self. With such bite-sized scenes it was not always easy to stay focused on their back-stories, although her later scenes as the discarded lover who, in turn has discarded her child, were very moving.

Perhaps the best of five excellent performers was Nicola Osborne as Mary Betterton whose master-class in “clock-face“ acting. and deliciously OTT Cleopatra (l was taking notes for summer) were highlights, as was her extraordinary hair!

Her ability to show the resigned acceptance of her diminishing power in the theatre, and explanation of how much less exciting it was playing women‘s roles compared with her earlier illegal forays into breaches that was most moving.

Spot-on chemistry

The best scenes were those involving all (or most) of the five together, as their joint chemistry and timing was spot-on.

So. lots of wonderful moments ‐ the sword fight of the two disguised ladies, the swearing, the props checking, backstage bitching and backstabbing, the rise and fall from hopeful beginner to hopeless has-been.

The play also raised questions about how women were (and are) treated in theatre, where talent can be secondary to youth and beauty in ways male actors rarely experience, and how roles for men and women differ so markedly.

It didn't completely bake into a whole theatrical cake, but the parts were tasty enough in themselves to leave me, on the whole, very satisfied.

Although the louts and lords could have been louder...

Preview: 'Strong roles for women''

Beverley Webster | director

While I was trying to find a play for my directorial debut with Masque, l settled upon two key criteria: firstly that it have a relatively small cast (max 8?) so that the rehearsal schedule would be easier to manage, and secondly that it have several strong roles for women, to offset the many plays in recent seasons that have plenty of substantial roles for men and maybe only one or two decent female roles.

Typing those criteria into Samuel French's website search revealed a wide selection of plays, many outdated and quite a few that were definitely not ones I was interested in directing - like one where the one male in the play was revisiting all his old ex-flames (I don‘t remember why) which provided a rounded male character but lots of one dimensional stereotypical females.

Trying to narrow down the search, I asked several friends for ideas of playwrights known for creating strong female characters. Thankfully a couple of these suggested April de Angelis and I ordered a collection of her plays from
Amazon. interestingly the version of Playhouse Creatures contained in this volume was not the standard acting version but one that had been written specifically for the National Theatre who had requested that some male roles be added.

Plethora of great actresses

Reading this version I was disappointed to find that it wasn‘t as good a play as I had been led to believe and the female roles weren't as strong as I had imagined. Luckily someone asked me if I had read the original version with five female characters only. I tracked down a copy and immediately knew that was the play I wanted to direct: the scenes were tighter and more vibrant; not having the male characters appear made the plight of the women more poignant; and the dialogue between the women seemed to spark vividly off the page.

With apologies therefore to Masque's male contingent on this occasion I selected a play With an all female cast.

I have always known that Masque has a plethora of great actresses (female actors for those who prefer that moniker) so I was confident that I would be able to put together a fantastic cast.

As predicted, at the audition we had such strong contenders for the roles that I could have cast the play several times over.

What did surprise me was that casting for strong female roles brought out actresses from a wide variety of companies across the county and not just Masque members: in fact at the audition the ratio of Masque members to new faces was about two to three and this is also reflected in the final cast.

April Pardoe and Nicola Osborne being Masque regulars and Ella Broughton (Royal & Derngate's Young Company Create, Sue Whyte (R&D's Actors' Company) and Julia Langley (a friend of Tamsyn Payne who has had an eight year break from acting) being new to Masque.

Playhouse Creatures provides quite a challenge for the cast as the characters are all actresses being themselves backstage as well as playing multiple roles in excerpts from ‘the classical repertoire'.

Flyer for Playhouse Creatures

Funny, witty, bawdy…

As if this wasn't challenging enough, I decided, following a lively chat with Ian Spiby during rehearsals for Shaxpeare's Box, that i would attempt to present the performed scenes in an authentic Restoration style, fitting in with the period of the play. Ian very kindly offered his expertise in this area. He ran a mini workshop on the Restoration style as part of the audition and recently led a vibrant rehearsal where we explored the use of gestures, a speaking style that utilises the entire vocal range and playing spoken dialogue directly to the audience rather than to the person to whom you are supposed to be speaking.

We're currently attempting to come to grips with jumping between this heightened style of acting and the naturalistic acting of the backstage scenes but it has added an extra dimension to the play and it will be interesting to find out how the audience respond to such a contrast of playing styles.

Right from the read-through, I have been excited and confident that this show will light up the Playhouse stage. It's funny, witty, bawdy, entertaining, surprising and poignant.

We've had lots of fun in rehearsals exploring these sparkling characters and from the beginning my cast gelled, now becoming a supportive, creative and confident ensemble.

I've been lucky to be able to assemble a great team behind the scenes too. After having worked with other
amateur and community theatre companies and being forced to take on multiple backstage roles myself, I'm really appreciating being able to focus on my directorial role, knowing that I can rely on the rest of the team to put their best into making sure that this show is another top quality Masque production.

In short: it's a great play With a fantastic cast and crew ‐ you'd be a fool to miss it!

This is Beverley Webster's first play for Masque Theatre. Trained at the Drama Studio London, Beverley worked as an actress for nearly 10 years. Since then she has worked with amateur and community theatre companies in London, Milton Keynes and Northampton as an actress, singer, director, writer, designer, costume mistress and workshop leader. Playhouse Creatures will be the fifth play Beverley has directed.