Arts / Grateful ‘Creatures’ turn it on for The Playhouse

“Playhouse Creatures”, from left, Emma Wood, Amy Dunham, Karen Vickery, and Liz Bradley . Photo by Kelly McGannon

STAGING “Playhouse Creatures” at The Playhouse might sound logical, but to actor and co-founder of Pigeonhole Theatre, Karen Vickery, the coming benefit performance they’re being given at The Playhouse is nothing short of exciting.

An “act of generosity” by the Canberra Theatre Centre and Cultural Facilities Corporation, it acknowledges Pigeonhole’s spectacular arrival on the local theatre scene, which led to its selection to perform at the Princess Grace Theatre in Monaco during the 16th Mondial du Théâtre.

The company, formed in 2015 by Jordan Best, Liz Bradley and Vickery, scored a notable success with its debut production at The Q of April de Angelis’ “Playhouse Creatures”, in which five of our top actresses – Amy Dunham, Emma Wood, Jenna Roberts, Vickery and Bradley – play the simultaneously loved and despised first actresses on the English stage.

“It’s extraordinary and very generous to give us the opportunity to perform in The Playhouse,” Vickery tells “CityNews”.

“It’s great to be able to show the version we are taking to Monaco.”

Karen Vickery in “Playhouse Creatures”. Photo by Kelly McGannon

All the “playhouse creatures” have had to pay for their own tickets.

“We are all broke and living on sandwiches, no smashed avocado for us,” she says.

“We’re hoping the sales of tickets for the show at The Playhouse will ease the way.”

They’ve been able to put together the original cast from the show at The Q, although Bradley is presently travelling in Germany and Wood has moved to Newcastle, so they’ve been rehearsing by Skype.

A long-time staffer at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Vickery is acutely aware of the differences between The Q, The Playhouse and the “much grander kind of theatre”, the Princess Grace. She believes it’s important for them to perform in a larger theatre before going overseas.

“The difference between the theatres is not as daunting for me as it might be for the others, because in my professional career I’ve been on tour in many different places,” she says.

Director of the play, Jordan Best, has all the specifications for the Princess Grace, which she chose from a range offered because it most suited the kind of show “Playhouse Creatures” is, focusing as it does on the first women in the English theatre after the Restoration of Charles II.

The theatre in Monaco, although large, has only one balcony, while our Playhouse has two, so that’s already an advantage and the benefit will give them all an idea of what it’s like performing to the balcony. In the historical era of the play there was no electric lighting, so grand gestures were important, but they’re not pushing that too far, “because people might think that it’s just bad acting”.

By day the director of Learning and Visitor Experience at the National Portrait Gallery, Vickery is also a theatre historian, so finds the play fascinating. It depicts the period when women were a novelty on the stage but at the same time reviled in society for their perceived immorality.

One of the several real-life characters in the play is Nell Gwynn, played by Amy Dunham, ultimately more famous for being the king’s mistress. Another, played by Jenna Roberts, is Mrs Farley, notorious for leaving the stage when it was discovered that she was pregnant out of wedlock.

Vickery’s own character is Mrs Mary Betterton, wife and business manager for the famous actor manager Thomas Betterton who, in real life, was asked by the king to train his daughters in the theatre arts. She’s a hot contender for the title of the first woman to open her mouth on the British stage, but in this play she’s suffering the fate of many a female performer – she’s past her prime.

While Restoration comedy gave women a prominent role – people poured into the theatres to see them – female characters were quickly stereotyped into sexual objects quite different from the heroines of Shakespeare, who had used male actors.

Monaco’s Theatre Princess Grace.

“The story which so interests me is that when actresses start playing women, the nature of their roles changed, really it was all about sex comedy and the male gaze,” Vickery says. She sees a parallel in the current debate about whether a female can play Dr Who.

The cast members leave Canberra on August 17 and will enjoy two days of R&R in Nice before joining the festival on August 21, where they will perform on August 22 and 23 along with the representatives of the Czech Republic and Russia.

“Not bad for our own little our company and our first show,” Vickery concludes.

“Playhouse Creatures”, benefit night at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre, 8pm, on Friday, August 11. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or call the box office on 6275 2700.

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