by April De Angelis
On the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Charles II permitted, for the first time, actresses to perform on stage. These were the 'playhouse creatures' of the play's title. The play brings these real historical characters to life, mixing actual events with what they might have said backstage. Mrs. Betterton is ageing and losing her once-renowned beauty. She owes her continued position at the theatre to her husband, the actor-manager, She seeks to pass on her acting "knowledge" to the younger Mrs Farley and Mrs Marshall while their dresser and servant, Doll Common, wryly observes.
The brash youngster, Nell Gwyn comes crashing into their world, determined to work her way up from orange-seller to actress. But "actress" to most 17th century gentlemen is just a step away from "whore" and the audience often come more to gawp at the female display than to appreciate their dramatic talent. The nobility seek them as mistresses with even the highest in the land engaged in the hunt. We see comedy and tragedy as the first female actors struggle for recognition and a new role for women, whilst often falling victim to the attitudes of the age, as these quotes from the Diary of Samuel Pepys show :
2 March 1667
After dinner with my wife to the King's House, to see The Mayden Queene, a new play of Dryden's... there is a comical part done by Nell, that I never can hope ever to see the like done again by man or woman. The King and the Duke of York was at the play, but so great a performance of a comical part was never, I believe, in the world before as Nell doth this, both as a mad girle, and then, most and best of all, when she comes in like a young gallant; and hath the motions and carriage of a spark the most that ever I saw any man have.
4 October 1667
...and she took us up into the tireing rooms and to the women's shift, where Nell was dressing herself and was all unready; and is very pretty, much prettier than I thought ... But Lord, to see how they were both painted and would make a man mad, and did make me loath them - and what base company of men comes among them, and how lewdly they talk, and how poor the men are in clothes, and yet what a show they make on stage by candlelight, is very observable.
This is funny play, both coarse and erudite, and features an all-female cast. There is some strong language.