Playhouse Creatures by April De Angelis
Directed by Margaret Bennett
Reading: Tuesday 30th January 2018 at 7:45 p.m.
Auditions: Thursday 1st February 2018 from 7:30 p.m.
Production Week: 5th – 12th May 2018
This is an all-female play, set in a London theatre, circa. 1669. King Charles II has returned to the throne of Great Britain. As part of the restoration, theatres, which have been closed for 17 years, are re-opened and astonishingly, women are allowed to act on stage for the first time. These women become known as ‘playhouse creatures’.
These early actresses were regarded as little more than prostitutes and treated as such, mainly by the nobility of the period. They would often add the title ‘Mrs’ to their name, in order to give themselves some semblance of respectability.
The most famous of these early actresses was Nell Gwyn, who famously rose from selling oranges in theatres, to become mistress of Charles II.
The play portrays the ups and downs of our early stage actresses, all of whom were real people (except for Doll Common), mixing actual events with what might have been said backstage. Elizabeth Howe’s book ‘The First English Actresses’ inspired April De Angelis to write this play.
Starting with the youngest in the cast, the characters in Playhouse Creatures are:
Nell Gwynn: We are introduced to Nell even before she begins selling oranges and follow her through her early acting days. We see her grow from a gauche, but street-wise, urchin, into a leading lady. Nell will age from around 17 up to her 30s.
Mrs Farley: Elizabeth Farley is a little older than Nell. In the play, she comes to the theatre around the same time as Nell. Though from a respectable family, she has fallen on hard times and resorts to the theatre in order to earn a living. After time, she finds herself in a ‘compromising situation through carelessness’ and has to leave the theatre.
Mrs Marshall: Rebecca Marshall is the same age as Mrs Farley and is already an accomplished actress when the play starts. She is a fiery person who, during the play, is in constant and often comic battle with the Earl of Oxford for throwing her over as his mistress.
Mrs Betterton: Mary Betterton is the wife of Thomas Betterton, who runs the Duke’s Company. They have both been in the theatre a while and it is Mrs Betterton who teaches Nell the ‘tricks of the acting trade’. She looks after the actresses in a ‘head-mistressy’ way
Doll Common: Probably the oldest in the cast and though not a real person, like the others, she is fundamental to the play as a sort of ‘everyman’, constantly observing the antics in the retiring room (as the changing room was known then) and advising the girls when she can.
I was introduced to Playhouse Creatures by Zoe Lambrakis, (once a member and now a professional actor). Once I read the play, I was very taken by it, as it covers both the pathos and hard work of these women’s lives, as well as the ridiculousness of their life-styles. I suppose it could be described as a dramatic comedy.
Please note that there are some sexual references and adult comments in this play.