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Review of ‘Compleat Female Stage Beauty’

by Steve Williams

 Compleat Female Stage Beauty is a sumptuous, sexy, riotous, fast-paced, bawdy romp set shortly after the Puritans had lost their power and influence. Charles II has just returned to England following his enforced exile in France and is keen to make his mark on history. Unfortunately Ned Kynaston is one of the biggest “losers” in this new and enlightened society. Until then women had been barred from acting, female parts having been hitherto played by “boy actors”. Ned Kynaston is recognised as arguably the finest of the “boy actors”, indeed Samuel Pepys described him as “the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life”! However Charles II changes all of that and alters the course of Kynaston’s life by introducing a law allowing women to appear on stage for the first time. The play examines what happens to an individual when their whole raison d’être is removed and we watch Kynaston’s slide from theatrical grandee to back-street bawdy-house freak and his re-invention and climb back to the top of his profession in a new guise.

Jane Buckland directed this complicated play brilliantly, ensuring the pathos was never lost even during the high comedy moments. Jane was helped by Tony Jenner and Jan Greenhough’s magnificent set which gave us revolving walls, sliding beds and actors being flown in from high above the set. Another key part of the show was the music and the brilliant Tom Dignum composed some wonderful baroque music with just a hint of the modern. Kirsten Beard provided a wonderful array of colour and design with the fabulous costumes which brought some brilliant contrast to the (deliberately) pale-coloured set. This was a difficult show for the backstage team and I would congratulate the whole team, lead by Holly Marsh, for a job very well done.

The play is introduced and, effectively, narrated by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys, wonderfully played by Paul Ackroyd combining the seriousness of the Pepys we imagine with the cheeky naughtiness we hope he had! As Ned Kynaston Howie Ripley was both assured and adept, seamlessly transforming from Ned the man to Ned the lady. My only concern was a “wardrobe malfunction” in two scenes on the night that I saw the show which somewhat spoiled the action as it was a serious distraction. It was a minor complaint over which I am sure Howie had no control and is a minor fault in an otherwise fine performance. Matthew Platt as the theatre owner, Thomas Betterton was excellent, showing us the ups and downs of dealing with a theatrical star. As Villiers, Ned’s gay lover and patron, Bruce Wallace was a revelation. Making his debut at BLT, Bruce scored a real hit and I hope to see him onstage again soon. Charis Anna Bayer was Ned’s assistant, Maria, who had dreams of playing on stage herself, despite her lack of ability and this was another fine performance by Charis, full of sensitivity and unrequited love for Ned. As Charles II James Mercer was the best I have seen him on the BLT stage giving a great, regal performance. As far as the male actors are concerned Martin Phillips stole the show as the wonderfully over-the-top and very camp Sir Charles Sedley. The most colourful of characters, Martin played him perfectly.

BLT debutant Megan McGery was Margaret Hughes, arguably the first professional actress on the English stage. Megan gave us a proud but insecure Margaret constantly seeking approbation but knowing, deep down, that she was not actually very good. A fine performance. We all know about Nell Gwynn and her oranges but Jaimi Keemer gave us a wonderful portrayal of Nell as the King’s mistress prepared to do anything to get her way but also showing her later regret at her actions. A real “tart with a heart” who gets extra marks from this reviewer for making her first entrance being lowered from high above the stage on a trapeze type seat! Jan Greenhough is a constant revelation on stage and she didn’t disappoint in this production, playing the foul-mouthed Mistress Revels, the bawdy-house proprietress, complete with eye patch and almost menacingly brandishing a cane. Helen Scott and Roxanne Graves were the two society women who were instrumental in the fall of Kynaston and these two actresses made a fine comedy duo. Other parts were played by Paul Green, Tom Dignum, Mike Baker and Jennifer Washbrook who all added to some great performances.

Compleat Female Stage Beauty was a triumph of directing, staging and acting and was a show that will live with me for a very long time. To quote Mr Pepys: “… and thence to the Theatre… which now does please me better than before. And here, I sitting behind in a dark place, a lady spat backward upon me by mistake, not seeing me. But after seeing her to be a very pretty lady, I was not troubled at it at all…” Well quite!