Theatre Review - The Divine Mrs S

Rachael Stirling in The Divine Mrs S [Johan Persson]

IN 1800, popular actress Sarah Siddons was a celebrity, but had little power over her career. In April De Angelis’s entertaining comedy, Siddons (Rachael Stirling) is controlled by her theatre manager brother, Kemble (Dominic Rowan), who decides on her roles and where she appears, while her husband (who remains unseen) pockets her fees.

The Divine Mrs S is set backstage (beautifully designed by Lez Brotherston) in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane where Siddons regularly performed. At the start of the play Siddons is mourning the death of a daughter. Various people pass by her dressing room, from the censor’s wife (Sadie Shimmon) to portrait painter Thomas Lawrence (Gareth Snook).

Kemble is portrayed as a buffoon who can’t act and declaims every speech while Siddons “feels” her way through her parts. There are some witty lines about the theatre ethos of the time, playwrights are denounced as “impractical and most of them can’t write dialogue”, while one critic is described as “A dear friend. Who writes our reviews.”

De Angelis also draws parallels with today’s celebrity culture – Siddons receives “poisonous missives”, accusing her of neglecting her children and putting her work first, as well as fan mail.

Women lack agency or are shut down. Kemble tries to assault Siddon’s assistant, Patti (Anushka Chakravarti) and the censor’s daughter Clara (Eve Feiler) is incarcerated in the local madhouse by her husband. The playwright, Joanne Baillie (Feiler) writes a meaty role for Siddons in her play De Montfort and never writes again.

Anna Mackmin’s assured production rattles along well enough. Stirling is enthralling to watch and the gags come thick and fast, but the darker tangents are never really developed. De Angelis prefers to keep it light, and favours style over substance.

Until April 27

Originally published by Camden New Journal