By April de Angelis
Her Infinite Variety Ensemble
The Guild Studio, East Perth
REVIEW DAVID ZAMPATTI
British playwright April de Angelis' Playhouse Creatures is the best kind of historical drama. Firmly based on, but not bound by, real events and characters, it illuminates an era without either lecturing or tutoring.
In 1669, five pioneering actresses in Thomas Betterton's Duke's Company gossip, compete and compare notes backstage. Three of the five, Betterton's wife Mary (Angelique Malcolm), the beauty Rebecca Marshall (Summer Williams) and the tragic Elizabeth Farley (Tiffany Barton) were notable performers in the Restoration Theatre of the 1660s. One, Samuel Pepys' "pretty, witty" Nell Gwynn (Rhoda Lopez), went on to a king's bed and a place in history. The fifth, Katherine Corey (Claire Munday), who was nicknamed Doll Common - also by Pepys - is here more the character from Ben Jonson's The Alchemist than the actress who played her, but that's by the bye.
Playhouse Creatures is a perfect choice for the all-female Her Infinite Variety Ensemble (HIVE), whose charter is to create opportunities for women in local theatre.
Beyond its obvious advantages - five strong roles for actresses - the play deals with the most elemental opportunity for women in the theatre: the right to be in it at all, which, on the English stage at least, only came a few years before, in 1660.
Women may have earned the right to appear on stage, but they were still subject to opprobrium and, not uncommonly, sexual assault. De Angelis effectively paints the precarious position of these women and the dangers they faced on and off the stage.
The play has some structural difficulties - Lopez delivers a Shakespearean epilogue after which, strangely, things meander on for a few more uncomfortable scenes - but it remains powerful and engaging theatre throughout.
The director, Helen Doig, and her charges bring each of the people behind the pale, painted faces and ruby-red kissing lips to vivid life. Lopez, the current WA Equity Guild Actress of the Year, and the charismatic Williams give magnetic performances as the Miss Freeloves of 1669, and Barton is powerful and, ultimately, heartbreaking when her Farley finds that love isn't free at all. (One scene, the consequence of Farley's abandonment by her titled lover, deserves an adult content caution far more than the occasional partial nudity in the performance).
Malcolm and Munday (whose Katherine Corey is remarkably reminiscent of Emma Chambers' Alice Tinker in The Vicar of Dibley) are effective as the leading lady on her way out and the company's seamstress and general dogsbody.
This is a fine statement by HIVE after their frankly inauspicious debut, 2011's all-female Titus Andronicus. To their credit, they've had the initiative to turn a disused room in the old Equity Guild building in East Perth into a pop-up theatre. It's fairly rough and ready, and only seats 40, but this instructive and richly entertaining production deserves to fill them.
Playhouse Creatures is at the Guild Studio, 123 Claisebrook Road, East Perth, until June 8. Book at trybooking.com/BNAU.