Review: THE DIVINE MRS S, Hampstead Theatre

A confused play on the first female theatre star.

By: Mar. 29, 2024
Review: THE DIVINE MRS S, Hampstead Theatre
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Review: THE DIVINE MRS S, Hampstead Theatre We’ve grown to be obsessed with famous people. From Taylor Swift to the Kardashians, from Leo Di Caprio’s latest fling to Johnny Depp’s misbehaviours, celebrity culture populates our media. While it may seem like this phenomenon is idiosyncratic of this century, this fascination of ours dates back hundreds of years. Greg Jenner wrote a remarkable book, Dead Famous, exploring the subject from the Bronze Age onwards - it’s a gripping read. Now, playwright April De Angelis dips into the history of acting royalty and delivers a backstage comedy of curious quality with the first fully fledged celebrity as the heroine at the centre.

Review: THE DIVINE MRS S, Hampstead Theatre
Anushka Chakravarti, Rachael Stirling, Dominic Rowan in The Divine Mrs S

It’s the 1800s and Sarah Siddons is wowing audiences and critics with her tragic characters. She’s a woman on top of the world at a time when performing was considered a demeaning job (unless you were a man). Behind the scenes, her cheating husband pockets her earnings while her brother is in charge of her career. The Queen of Drury Lane is at the mercy of the men in her life. The tragedienne, tired of the roles she’s assigned, decides to take matters into her own hands and stage a new work by an anonymous writer.

The Divine Mrs S is a load of… silliness. And not in a positive way. Directed by Anna Mackmin, it’s difficult to understand what the play wants to say. Its raison d’être could be anything from a bid to have more parts for older actors to an attempt at showing the start of female liberation. Very little happens. At nearly two hours and a half, the show is excessively long and dull to the degree that it could be easily pruned of one-third and the story wouldn’t suffer at all. We’re not sure what happened to De Angelis during the creative process or what external forces influenced the thematic matter, but the piece is all over the place from start to end.

Review: THE DIVINE MRS S, Hampstead Theatre
Eva Feiler in The Divine Mrs S

“The best thing to survive in the business is to adore everything you’re in,” a member of the company says during a rehearsal scene. It gets the biggest roar of laughter of the night. The use of language and the tone of the writing try to blend contemporary terms and modern twists with period-accurate turns of phrase, but it isn’t a smooth feat. It ends up being Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia’s weird cousin who desperately wants to emulate its sharper and more successful relative. It’s aimless and confused as well as riddled with static figurines who avoid going on any kind of personal journey, nevermind a hero’s.

Rachael Stirling is Mrs Siddons. Deliciously sardonic and caustic throughout, Stirling presents a gifted but egocentric actress who can’t escape the shadow of the dying mothers she becomes. Taunted by her untalented brother (Dominic Rowan in a larger than life performance) and punished with touring by her rascal husband (whom we never meet as he’s too busy tending to his mistress), she’s delighted when she finally gets to portray a woman who interrupts men. Unlike their fictional project, the one we see doesn't seem to have any intellectual and moral depth.

Review: THE DIVINE MRS S, Hampstead Theatre
The company of The Divine Mrs S

The Regency diva has a maid-slash-dresser named Patti (Anushka Chakravarti in brilliant form) who goes a baffling bout of rape-plot when Kemp (the aforementioned brother) comes onto her. This mechanical device adds nothing and goes nowhere, but unsettles the mood further. Eva Feiler solidifies the conversation surrounding the historical mistreatment of women with a few of her characters, probably establishing the most concrete discourse in the production. She is the extravagant, kooky writer whose identity threatens the reputation of the theatre as well as a girl deemed hysterical by her family. We wish De Angelis pursued this path and how it relates to Siddons instead of running in circles.

Politically correct risks struggle to spice up the tradition of this brand of old-fashioned humour, so the play remains a tired, unfunny comedy that doesn’t have a point. It could be a sharply satirical take on the contributions of women to the industry, or a feminist riot, or even the mere biography of a critical yet lesser known figure in entertainment history, but it’s none of that. This said, the visuals are truly remarkable. Lez Brotherston sets the action at the back of the stage between the skeletal framing of the backdrops. A horizontal slice cut out of the raked staging implies the seclusion of Sarah’s dressing room. Candles and the weighted sacks of the pulley system dot the air. It's all natural wood and neutral hues, a gorgeous taste in design. It’s a shame that the circumstances waste it.

The Divine Mrs S runs at Hampstead Theatre until 27 April.

Photo credits: Johan Persson