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Indebted to Chance review at Old Red Lion, London – ‘unpolished historical biography’

Beth Eyre and Charlie Ryall in Indebted to Chance at the Old Red Lion, London. Photo: Chris Marchant

Actor, puppeteer, and author Charlotte Charke was an intriguing but often overlooked historical figure, a woman who, in the early 1700s regularly performed male roles and spent several years living as a man. Indebted to Chance is an unsteady and unfocused attempt to piece together her chaotic and contradictory story, albeit one given an energetic staging by director Jenny Eastop, who livens things up with bursts of singing and boisterous ensemble scenes.

Jailed shortly before she could play the lead in a production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer – which Mercurius has also revived as a companion piece to this show – Charke tells her tale with contemporary language and attitude, taking swipes at inequality and sexist social conventions on the way.

Writer Charlie Ryall plays Charke with an awkward mix of passion and petulance, eloquently eulogising the fragility of art one moment, jumping up and down in inarticulate exasperation the next.

Amongst an uneven cast, Andy Secombe is strong as Charke’s cantankerous and condescending father, theatre manager and poet laureate Colley Cibber, peppering his performance with some effortlessly charming ad-libbed asides. Daniel Barry, too, puts great energy into a number of smaller parts, proving especially convincing as charismatic satirist Henry Fielding.

The design, by Sunny D Smith, is effective, evoking a backstage space with little more than a few smartly painted signs and wall-mounted candleholders. Between scenes, tethered fly lines are pulled forward to represent the bars of the debtors’ prison where Charlie repeatedly finds herself.

Meet Charlotte Charke, the cross-dressing heroine and first female Hamlet

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Unpolished historical biography that fails to articulate the complexities of its interesting subject