Thursday, 31 March 2016

Playhouse Creatures, Pidgeonhole Theatre, The Q

Pidgeonhole Theatre launch into Canberra Theatre with a clever, thoughtful and above all immensely skilled production drawing from the Restoration period, as women were allowed to act on the English stage for the first time. We follow four actresses onstage and off as they struggle with their precarious profession along with the expectations and bad treatment of the men around them.

The main attraction here is five extraordinarily rich roles for five extraordinary actresses. All get a chance to mine rich comedic and dramatic gold out of their parts. 

For Amy Dunham, it's a role that could have been written for her. She is lustily enjoyable as the most famous of the bunch, Nell Gwynn, who gets the widest arc as she rises from tavern wench to king's mistress. She's vulgar, naive, engaging, wildly crazy, fun, reflective, glamorous, thoughtful, emotional and above all mesmerising. She's one of my favourite actresses on the Canberra stage and this may be the best thing I've seen her in thus far - if not, it's pretty darn close. 

Fortunately the rest are some of my other favourite actresses. Karen Vickery has true imperious power as Mrs Betterton, wife of the theatre manager, who starts as a somewhat petty snob before evolving into something far more interesting as she finds herself increasingly denied opportunities as she gets older. To start as a figure of comedy and end as a figure of tragedy is no mean feat, and Vickery triumphs in both, from the hysterical acting lessons to Nell to the intensity of Lady Macbeth's mad scene. 

Emma Wood as Mrs Marshall combines onstage smoothness with offstage desperation and rage as she is increasingly taunted and mistreated by an ex-lover. Again, the role requires Wood to patrol the full range between dignity and wild frustration, and she hits every note spot on. 

Jenna Roberts as Mrs Farley gets maybe the shortest shrift in the writing - her rise is largely implied in a blackout and her fall is similarly abrupt - but as the girl who trades on her beauty and body until both betray her and see her exiled, she's suitably stylish, proud, infuriating and ultimately heartbreaking. 

Liz Bradley's Doll Common is dresser, confidante, sardonic observer and occasional narrator and ties the evening together with wit and with strong presence in her opening and closing monolgoues.

Jordan Best directs with a strong hand and a smooth pace, as well as providing tense and dramatic cello interludes as part of Matthew Webster's score. Christine Nowak's set is simple (a platform with a decorative screen above for the stage, a couple of chairs and hainging spots below for the dressing room) but effective, and Kelly McGannon's lighting shows it off nicely. 

As a demonstration of the power of these fine actresses, "Playhouse Creatures" should not be missed. 

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