Playhouse Creatures at West Walls Theatre
Written by April De Angelis
Directed by Eva Cook
My pen floated over my diary page for many minutes while I pondered and collected by thoughts on Playhouse Creatures, the latest production in an excellent season from Carlisle Green Room Club. Under normal circumstances I find opinions almost worryingly easy to settle upon. Rarely a fence sitter, I will merrily leap to one side of a divide over another supremely argent in my confidence that 'sod what everyone else thinks, I'm almost certainly right'. Certainly when it comes to the theatre, it's almost unheard of for me not to rise from my seat at the end of a performance with a definitive critique already forming in my mind. Playhouse Creatures however has me stumped. Which isn't to say I haven't plenty of opinions regarding individual aspects of the production, simply that for the first time in years when my friend asked me as we were leaving what I thought about the play I was forced to use a phrase rarely uttered in my vocabulary; 'I don't know'.
The play follows five actresses - Nell Gwyn, Elizabeth Farley, Rebecca Marshall, Doll Common and Mary Betterton - as they struggle to maintain a life in the theatre as first of their kind. Principally a character driven piece, the plot veers from 'light' to 'absent', returning only when writer April De Angelis feels it necessary to remove a player (quite literally) from the stage via spontaneous use of witchcraft, pregnancy or age. This would be fine - a great many plays have succeeded with far less story to work with - but unfortunately as a character piece Playhouse Creatures also largely falls flat. Each of the actresses occupies the role of a acrhetype and sadly little else - Nell is young, pretty and ambitious, Mrs Marshall is seasoned, cynical and vicious, Mrs Betterton is an old pro, well spoken and wise, and as such despite the clear talents of the real actresses portraying these characters, none are given the space to develop into anything other than their initial character description.
Instead of fleshing out our pioneering heroines, De Angelis devotes great chunks of the play to seeing the characters performing other plays. I'd approximate that in total around a quarter of the run time was dedicated to these shows within shows, a technique that works well in comedies but feels out of place here - particularly as, in this instance, they were largely being played for laughs.
Which brings me to, in my opinion, perhaps the biggest failing of the play. Its tone.
I'm not suggesting for a moment here that all dramas should be nothing but serious and all comedies should be nothing but funny. Far from it, the best plays always use aspects of both in order to feel in any way realistic. I find dramas without any humour as tiresome as comedies that spare no time for moments of character. Meanwhile the tone in Playhouse Creatures veers so wildly and behaves so erratically as to render the audience almost uncomfortable. On the one hand we have a play more than happy to get a cheap laugh out of a well placed swear word (which, when used in context and within reason is a perfectly justified and effective ploy - even if it does become somewhat overused in this case), using ridiculous rubber snakes to raise laughs out of outrageous melodrama and, most effectively of all, almost every line uttered by the sublime Doll Common, to scenes of a DIY abortion, a woman fleeing from inevitable burning at the stake and a general undercurrent of all manner of suffering and woe. This shouldn't be read as a criticism of this production - both sides of the coin are well portrayed, the notable void between the two being more a fault of the script than of director Eva Cook.
Despite this inconsistency there was much to enjoy in Playhouse Creatures, not least the scene stealing performance by Jenny Pike as Doll Common. Her deadpan delivery of almost every genuinely funny line in the show had the audience in hysterics time after time whilst also managing the difficult transition from humour to bleak with consummate ease as she told the tale of her father and bear-pits. Sarah Waters also impressed with a beautifully underplayed Mrs Marshall, allowing her moments of righteous anger hit all the harder when they bubbled to the surface. Kath Paterson for the most part successfully channelled Patricia Routledge as Hyacinth Bucket in her portrayal of Mrs Betterton and clearly relished the scene describing the art of acting via the medium of a clock face. Michelle Crangle I feel perhaps suffered from a misprint in her copy of the script as for the majority of the play I was convinced I was watching her play the role of Nancy from the musical Oliver!, her "Cor blimey guv'na!" mockney accent certainly originating from a wholly different show the rest of the cast. Thankfully this didn't detract from her well captured more poignant scenes toward the end of the play.
As seems to be par for the course with Green Room productions this season, the set provided a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Few other amateur societies can boast a period set as intricately detailed with little flourishes as the dressing room, or as beautifully designed as the mural adorning the back section of the stage. In this case though the permanent set did provide a few difficulties. By effectively halving the stage space both areas soon felt crowded when all five characters were present which, especially in the dressing room, was often the case. Entire scenes would be played out with almost no movement or changes of position. A line early in the play remarked about how crucial 'stillness' was to acting - perhaps in this case Cook took the line a little too much to heart.
Even having put all of these thoughts to paper I'd still struggle to answer my friend's question as to what I thought about Playhouse Creatures. Which, perhaps, is no bad thing. Whether good or bad, theatre should always get you thinking and, despite the failures of the play itself, this production has certainly had me scratching my head more than any other in quite some time.