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The Theatreguide.London Review

The Divine Mrs S
Hampstead Theatre     Spring 2024

The Divine Mrs S by April De Angelis takes a comedic tilt at the mistreatment of women in the early 19th Century, centring on the actor Sarah Siddons’ frustration at performing run-of-the-mill melodramas in which she plays the supporting role of a grieving 'saintly' defeated woman.

Siddons tells her brother John Philip Kemble, who controls the money and dictates the choice of plays mounted at the Drury Lane Theatre, that they are the 'Same part, different bonnet.'

An opportunity to do something better appears when her brother is sent an anonymous play with a strong sensitive female lead. Sarah loves it. The audience on the first night love it. Even Mrs Larpent (Sadie Shimmin), the woman who unofficially makes the decisions for her husband the official censor, loves it.

Unfortunately, there is a big problem. Kemble (Dominic Rowan), rather irritated that his sister overshadows his part, discovers a woman has written it. That is enough to lose its audience, worry the censor and get it cancelled.

Not to be defeated, Siddons threatens to not perform for several months unless she gets to play the part. Kemble solves that problem by signing a contract that sends her off despite her objections to play Hamlet in Ireland.

Returning after the death of her daughter Sally to perform in a play about a woman driven mad by her brutal husband, she researches the role by visiting someone consigned to a local asylum by her husband because men had the power to use this legal method of disposing of wives even though they were sane.

The actors, in particular Rachael Stirling as Siddons and Anushka Chakravarti as her dresser Patti, give warm confident performances despite the one-dimensional cartoon representation of the characters preventing us from regarding them as real people with depth and complexity

Although the play depicts and challenges the appalling treatment of women by sexual harassment and the control men exert over their money and lives, our empathy with its victims and outrage at society is undermined by the show's relentless repetition of certain often trivial jokes such as Kemble's inability to act.

Nevertheless, in the UK today where a typical show will have an audience of mainly women watching the stage antics of mainly men performing plays written by men, the show is important in highlighting a continuing gender inequality that needs to change.

Keith McKenna

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Review of The Divine Mes S - Hampstead Theatre 2024