The second production to be staged in Chichester’s pop-up Theatre on the Fly demonstrates just how versatile a space it is. The slatted back doors have been pulled shut and the place has taken on the air of a Restoration playhouse. The season’s designer, Andrew D Edwards, once again subtly echoes the structure of the building itself with a backdrop of brass piping and lengths of rope, but there are also splashes of grandeur in the chandeliers and swagged green velvet curtain.
Set in the late 17th century, April de Angelis’ play explores the world of the first women to perform on stage. Their status was precarious, the line between actress and courtesan all too permeable, and they were often exploited, used and then cast aside.
De Angelis brings together a number of famous - and infamous - women of the time. Alexandra Gilbreath lends a sense of poignancy to her portrayal of Mary Saunderson Betterton - one of the very first women to play many of Shakespeare’s key female roles - whose career is gradually eclipsed by younger, bolder, prettier girls, including one Nell Gwyn, played with endearing chirpiness by Charlotte Happy Beaumont.
Gilbreath cuts a regal figure even when diminished and her voice is magnificently rich. But as touching and engaging as her trajectory is, there’s a curious lack of dramatic momentum to the play and the secondary characters are flat in comparison. Michael Oakley’s atmospheric production compensates considerably for these narrative lulls, the lights fading on a lost world as night falls.