Long Lane Theatre Company
Underbelly, Bristo Square
In the days of Restoration London, the return to performances of theatre post-interregnum let the tantalising possibility of women upon the stage for the first time in England. This play takes that concept and weaves a tale of a rivalry between a pair of the first known of these “actresses” to walk the boards.
Set during the first days of the royal patronage of Sir Thomas Killigrew’s King’s Company, The Actress tells the stories of Anne Marshall and Margaret Hughes, who each approach the stage from their own opposite social position, and for their own reasons: Anne, from a once noble family, while Margaret an expensive courtesan and brother owner.
While the pair’s vying egos and needs to succeed are interesting, one problem is that, much like in real life, we never really learn enough about Anne, while Margaret is well defined, understandable and generally her motivations and character make sense. The mystery of Anne and her friend Nell actively detract, as they feel undefined in a script that is far more keen to draw subtextual allusions to modern-day celebrity and the commodification of women's bodies than making us care about who these people are.
That said, there is a lot of humour, and more than a little pathos as well, meaning the audience certainly isn't bored by the story, even if it does pedal water rather a lot.
It’s an interesting play though, to be sure, as early scenes make merry jest of some aspects of stage-blocking and there are some sly and throwaway references that will appeal to those familiar with the period and the history. Yet the story it tells, while interesting, never really gets to grips with the women themselves, who ironically feel like they ultimately take a bit of a back seat in their own tale.
Reviewer: Graeme Strachan