Review by Matthew Taylor
I must admit, having read the synopsis of “Playhouse Creatures” (an all-female exploration of five characters in the theatrical world of Restoration London) I’d been a bit worried it was going to be… well, you know… shrill. Luckily I was in for a treat! It was no such thing – April De Angelis’ play is both funny and interesting, so much so that I barely even noticed how long it went on for! Even I who profess to love the stage often tire around the 90 minute mark – must be something to do with football. But this kept me gripped all the way to the end.
Regular readers will know already that I rate Pepper’s Ghost very highly in the local theatre stakes. They’ve won three Monkey Kettle Awards over the last four years (Best Theatre Company 2004 and 2006 and Best Play for “Happy Days” in 2006 too, if you’re counting!) – so I’d say they are definitely my favourite local group that don’t have me in
And this was typically Pepper’s Ghostian fare – professionally produced, extremely well lit (if we did awards for lighting I’m sure Jase would win it every year!) and well acted across the board. Alexandra Robinson played the most prominent role (Nell Gwyn) with buxom aplomb, down-to-earth like Martine McCutcheon at the court of King Charles II. The scene where - panicking on stage for the first time - she has a brainstorm and breaks into a cheerful jig which slowly grows in confidence was superb! Not easy to pull off, but it worked really well.
Fiona Smith’s Mrs Marshall was tightly-wound, occasionally bursting into exquisite viciousness. Rosemary Hill brilliantly cast as the eccentric Mrs Betterton, wildly pronouncing her theories on acting. And Ghost staples Natasha Ellis and Sue Whyte were both excellent as ever, Sue having plenty of fun with the speak-as-I-find Doll Common (“Can you imagine me humping a wardrobe?”). Natasha always reminds me of some kind of forties or fifties B&W movie actress, even when she’s reduced to wretched poverty in Stuart England. There's a look of her.
In the First Act, I felt that the audience weren’t picking up on most of the well-scripted archness of the comedy (“Never underestimate the power of the open mouth - one may go long way in the theatre with an open mouth”), and as a result I was left chuckling to myself in occasional slightly awkward silences. But certain very funny sections started to slowly pull them in: for example Mrs Betterton teaching Nell how to act using various clock-face alignments (“Heavenly abandonment at midday. Death at a quarter to three”).
Which was just as well, because one of the play’s strengths was the swing in the Second Act from comedy into some pretty bleak waters. You’re not going to see too many plays which contain live abortions on stage. Alright, perhaps at MADCAP you might, but in general you know what I mean. The whole sequence where Mrs Farley is “rid” of her unwanted burden on a table in the backstage area was horrific and compelling. The tension and the silence. You don’t get too many moments like that in local theatre.
So then: a play that Says Something about Women In Theatre without whacking you over the head with 70s pamphlet rhetoric. A fizzy script. Genuinely engaging performances. A swordfight, even!! What more could you want?
I’ll let you know next time they have a show on so you can come with me, and see that I’m not just making this stuff up! If you’re into Theatre and live in Milton Keynes, you’ve really got to be there. And they can quote me on that on a poster and everything. If they want to ;-)