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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Arifa Akbar

The Divine Mrs S review – larky and good-natured historical comedy

Woman in crisis … Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons.
Woman in crisis … Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons. Photograph: Johan Persson

There is a certain chutzpah to writing a comedy about the life of Sarah Siddons, the great tragedian of 18th-century British theatre. That is what April De Angelis does in this backstage drama, which packs some punches among its jokes on what it was to be a sole, female megastar of the stage.

Siddons (Rachael Stirling) is a woman in crisis when we first meet her. A daughter has died and her husband is shacked up with a mistress. Her brother, Kemble (Dominic Rowan), a fellow (more wooden) actor and theatre manager, is a bully who hustles her into parts.

Yet the tone stays breezy and the comedy rambunctious which works, up to a point. The humour, historical detail and mix of period language with the odd modern obscenity makes it seem like Siddons’ life has been put through the Blackadder wringer.

Just as in Blackadder, the larky comedy is good-natured and clever, but it does not deepen enough. A few scenes dip their toes into powerful, darker material (backstage sexual harassment and a piercing moment in a “madhouse”) but not for long. Directed by Anna Mackmin, it is baggy in shape and might have benefited from sharper pacing.

It is clear that De Angelis has done her research, and blends this in well on the whole. She takes the mystery of De Montfort – a play written by the female playwright Joanna Baillie – to drive her plot, explaining in the programme how no other play by Baillie was ever produced after this one, but that Siddons continued to give private readings of it.

Baillie (Eva Feiler) puts a strong female part at its centre and for a while fills Siddons with hope. “She interrupts men,” she says of the role, and speaks of playing Hamlet not in breeches but a dress.

Just as Ivo Van Hove’s play-within-a-play about a woman in crisis gets under way in the West End, this has its own meta moments too. Jokey digs are taken at the actor, the playwright and the critic. They vaguely amuse, but lack bite.

The cast is strong throughout, even if the volume rises to shouty anger in lieu of more textured emotions towards the end. Stirling makes an appealing Siddons, bearing the vague air of comedian Josie Lawrence while Feiler is amusing as the comically intense Baillie.

Lez Brotherston’s set design comprises Siddons’ dressing room as well as the back of the curtain at Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, and has a beautiful cream palette. We occasionally see the depth of black where the audience sits, clapping or jeering, on the other side.

There are cogent points made on how little has changed for women in the public eye (Siddons receives acid hate mail by post as something of a precursor to the Twitter pile-on) and the play’s central message, on the dearth of central female roles is still sadly applicable several centuries on, as the Bechdel test attests.

But dramatically, you do not feel you know Siddons better by the end, though you know about her life, and just what an anomaly she was. It ends with Siddons’ famously humane portrayal of Lady Macbeth in 1785, but we are not given enough emotionally for this moment to feel quite as poignant as it might.

• At Hampstead theatre, London, until 27 April

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