Theatre review: The Divine Mrs S

Round & About

Divine Mrs S

Jonathan Lovett reviews the world premiere of The Divine Mrs S by April De Angelis at Hampstead Theatre

Sarah Siddons was not only one of the great actors of the 18th century but one of the first modern celebrities.

Carefully calibrating her image she chose her roles shrewdly and worked with the best portrait artists of the age to represent her as a cultural icon – tragic muse, Lady Macbeth etc. She also spun herself as a devoted mother even though her chosen career demanded she often had to neglect her children.

As such her and her era are fascinating subjects for a playwright as skilful as April De Angelis who penned the brilliant Playhouse Creatures about female actors in the Restoration period, set 100 years before this one.

And yet… even though Angelis’s new play stars the commanding, twice Olivier nominated Rachael Stirling it is but a walking shadow to the life of dramatic technicolour lived by Siddons and her contemporaries.

Set mostly backstage at the Drury Lane Theatre we hurry through a number of vignettes involving Siddons (Stirling), her brother and theatre manager, Kemble (Dominic Rowan), and a host of quirky characters who pop in and out of proceedings.

Siddons is tired of performing in sub-standard romances or revisiting Shakespeare for the umpteenth time and yearns for something fresh and radical. Enters unknown playwright Joanne Baillie (entertaining Eva Feiler) who bonds with Siddons and writes her parts to die for.

So there is a lot of comic potential and opportunity for comment on women on stage and their place in the patriarchal society but the play never takes off and, for the first half in particular, it feels flat.

Too sketchy to fully involve the audience in a strong, engaging narrative; not funny enough to carry us along on a wave of laughter; and lacking the biographical insight to spark interest this is an odd hotch potch that fails to do justice to its source.

It’s a shame as Stirling certainly has the stage presence – as well as the plangent voice of the tragedian – to be a successful Siddons. At the end she is allowed to portray the actress as Lady Macbeth and for a few moments the audience holds its breath in a too fleeting flicker of what could have been.

Until 27th April. Box office: 020 7722 9301