Chester Little Theatre will become a stage-within-a-stage with their latest production of Playhouse Creatureswhich explores the lives of pioneering actresses during the reign of Charles II as they venture on the stage for the first time. Up until then, women’s roles were taken by boys.
King Charles II, of the lustrous, long brown locks and wandering brown eye, was the monarch who gave a Royal Decree that women should be allowed to perform on the stage. Nowadays we cannot imagine live theatre without the talent of a Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett or Helen Mirren, but in 1663, women performing on stage was a great novelty and shock.
Playhouse Creatures by April de Angelis explores this revolutionary event through the lives of some of the women who really did tread the boards back then. From Mary Betterton to the young Nell Gwyn, de Angelis gives us a stark and realistic view of life behind the silk curtains and beautiful costumes as it would have been for actresses of the time. Nell Gwyn learnt the tricks of the trade on the streets of London as an oyster and orange seller – she is nobody’s fool (not even the King’s) and though she reaps her reward, “a whole house and a park!”, she is still dependent on the whims of a man. The ageing Mary Betterton is sacked by her own theatre-managing husband, because in his opinion the audience wants to see younger flesh – the Me Too movement indicates that attitudes are still evolving.
As well as the named actresses, de Angelis introduces an “everywoman”, Doll Common, who has worked behind the scenes all her life and acts as a support and general dogsbody. This characterful cockney, who remembers the theatre when it was a bear pit, knows all the actresses’ secrets, listens to their woes and guides them through the snares and delusions awaiting them.