Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

Historical delight of the boards

Pioneering ladies of the footlights: (from left to right): Mrs Marshall (Marion Pritchett), Nell Gwyn (Laura Chinn), Mrs Betterton (Dee White), and Mrs Farley (Sandra Haynes)

Playhouse Creatures

Highbury Theatre Centre

Sutton Coldfield


NIGEL HIGGS has come up with a studio production that is a little charmer. The occasion is a play in which author April de Angelis takes a thought-provoking, often mischievous, look at the experiences of the first actresses to grace the English stage – and not for a moment is there a suggestion that it is not going to work. 

It takes five actresses to tell the 17th-Centry story, of whom two – Claire Armstrong Mills and Laura Chinn – are a  joy in the most rewarding of the parts on offer, with  Dee White, Sandy Haynes and Marion Pritchett not putting a foot wrong in providing the essential support that guarantees the rounded view which results. 

We get a shot of Shakespeare and Restoration comedy; see the moment when Mrs Marshall (Marion Pritchett) announces that she's a novelty and decides it's time for actresses to be paid for their work; and when Mrs Farley (Sandy Haynes) finds herself led by prostitution into a failed abortion. 

And there's the matter-of-fact honesty of the tiny Doll Common (Claire Armstrong Mills), all perky impishness in black, with an adopted rocky gait, who looks back at her own career: “I'm usually the dead one under the cloak, or else I'm sweeping.”  

Claire Armstrong Mills (Doll Common) and Laura Chinn (Nell Gwyn) drinking to the tale of Britain's first actresses 

She is just as forthcoming over her upbringing: “Rural experience? Me mum kept an ۥen.” And she confides (a) that she “can't do cries” – “I show meself up”; and (b) that the chamber pot was emptied on Tuesday and it's now Friday. 

Indeed, she has an abundance of memorable moments. She never lets one escape and she recalls, “I did parts for years. I did ۥem so long, I forgot I couldn't read.” 

There's the moment of enquiry when the playhouse is described as a pit of pestilence: “Do they fornicate?” “Nah. Say poetry and walk about.”  

Laura Chinn is the good-hearted Nell Gwyn, she of the daunting décolletage and assorted oranges; joyous flamboyance allied to faith in the staying power of her underpinnings. 

It's earthy, unafraid of some lively language and brimming with spirit. There's pride, too, as when Dee White (Mrs Betterton – she who had “tasted the forbidden fruit” by anticipating the Royal decree of Charles II that legitimised the work of actresses – brings an air of dignity to her summation of her life. 

This is a production, interestingly played in bare feet, which flows like a warmed icicle – but, on one occasion in particular, which also demonstrates that it is not afraid of silences.  

Splendid stuff! To 22-10-11.

John Slim 

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