‘The Actress’ (Underbelly Bristo Square – Dairy Room, until 29th AUG)

“…superbly captures the debauched revelry of Restoration London. “

Editorial Rating: 5 Stars (Outstanding)

In the London of 1660, the restoration of King Charles II heralds an arts renaissance, a keynote of which is the reopening of theatres and most controversially, women being allowed on an English stage for the very first time. The King’s Company of players invite two actresses to join them, but only one can be the first ever to play a major role: that of Desdemona in Othello. Who will it be?

Written and directed by Andrew Pearson-Wright, this production by the Long Lane Theatre Company (based on a true story) superbly captures the debauched revelry of Restoration London, and as the programme warnings of some occasional nudity and content of a sexual nature suggest, there is much roister-doistering afoot! Charlotte Price plays the hopeful outsider Anne Marshall, a provincial ingenue in search of her big break into acting. The competition comes in the shape of the glamorous Eve Pearson-Wright, playing the worldly and experienced front-runner Margaret Hughes. Naturally, we root for the virtuous Anne, sympathetically and convincingly played by Price, but Pearson-Wright as Margaret is very easy on the eye and easily wraps the two men on the stage – Matthew Hebden and Andrew Loudon as men about town and the theatre manager – around her manipulative fingers. A third actress in this five-piece cast is Hattie Chapman, who plays a number of smaller characters, including Anne’s best friend. Chapman is a highly effective foil to the main characters, her strikingly engaging facial expressions and electro-magnetic eyes enhancing the humour and emotion of every scene she was in.

As may be expected in a play about theatre, there is much wry self-referential humour about life on the stage: “Audiences? Since when have they been able to judge what’s good and what isn’t?”. But a dark counterpoint to this is shown in the portrayal of a time when men could pay to watch the actresses changing into their costumes backstage before a play, and female performers could be subject to vicious attacks by religious fundamentalists who saw them as little more than “devil’s whores”. The enduring feminine struggle to find one’s way in the world was reflected in a frisson of recognition from women around me in the audience when Margaret wearily remarks to the naïve Anne: “You’re a woman: adapt or die”.

Enacted on a small stage with a basic set in a plain black-box auditorium, the show drew well-deserved whoops of rapturous applause at the end from the near-capacity 100-plus audience. I left the building imagining how this magical little gem of theatre would make a good Netflix costume drama.


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