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A CurtainUp London Review
By Lizzie Loveridge
You come on stage and everything happens the way it's meant to. And nobody in the audience looks at anybody else. Because you live in a sort of stolen time that they can't get to. Except through you
---John Honyman
When Sir Michael Gambon, burly of build and his face crevissed with character, takes to the stage, his distinctive and richly resonating voice captures everyone's attention. His stage presence is absorbing, his timing perfect. As the first night audience who crushed into London's Albery Theatre was highly representative of the thespian community, the atmosphere was charged with theatrical expectation. This production of Nicholas Wright's new play Cressida about the boy actors of the theatre under King Charles I, set just before the English Civil War, does not disappoint.

Wright has not attempted to write a period piece with characters addressing each other in olde English speake, which would be distracting and inevitably ersatz. His language is up to date, as are many of the issues touched on in the play which also affected the theatre community in the seventeenth century. This is often the source of humour as we laugh wryly at witty anachronisms similar to the jokes in the film Shakespeare in Love, or at how little has changed in this most insecure of professions.

Maybe boys are no longer kidnapped as John Shank, Michael Gambon's character was, but today they are captivated by the tinsel of prospective stardom. Cressida is set when boys playing the young female parts were mere commodities, bought and sold by theatre companies. Once they reached puberty many were cast out, although some struggled to continue in "the business" as actors, competing with a larger pool of talent for male parts.

The fascination of Cressida stems from the inter-relationships between the characters -- the very young and insecure actor, the master, the accountant/wheeler dealer, the ageing boy star, the dresser, the ex boy actor who married well -- all but one of whom were boy actors. Wright has based these characters on real people, mentioned in diaries, wills, play scripts, contracts and contemporary sources.

John Shank (Michael Gambon), is an actor, talent scout and teacher of boy actors. As the play opens he has borrowed to invest in a theatre company which goes under and leaves him in debt. His only hope of solvency is to train up for resale a seemingly hopeless case, Stephen Hammerton, (Michael Legge) a fourteen year old boy who is innocently effeminate. He becomes an instant success when he gives a truly feminine performance in Troilus and Cressida, but because he deviates from his his master's instruction, Shanks feels betrayed and falls ill.

Gambon's singular performance is admirably supported by Legge as the child first deserted by his parents and later left behind when his previous master absconds. The scene in which Shank takes him through John Bulwer's Rules of Rhetoric, schooling him in how to speak and what gestures to use, is a fascinating picture of an experienced master actor and his student. Daniel Brocklebank is diverting as Honey, an eighteen year old at the height of his career playing female parts. There is also a fine cameo in the "sauna" from Charles Kay as Jhon (sic) the old dresser in which he and Shank wittily look back on their lives and past sexual encounters.

Wright has great precision as a writer, his script full of detailed stage directions. Nicholas Hytner, an experienced director of theatre and the director of several films including The Madness of King George and the forthcoming Centre Stage, handles the playwright's detailed stage directions with seeming effortlessness. The opening scene, with Shank ill and drifting on a neoclassical cloud is just one of several sumptuous sets that are swung and pivotted into place. The costumes too are splendid, with the boy actors wearing gorgeous frocks of silk and lace with wigs, padding and hooped petticoats. As in an early scene the boys literally unpeel the layers of their stage disguise transforming from gorgeous princesses to real boys, so Wright has unpeeled the façade presented to their audience with modern parallels to add an edge that makes this more than a straight forward historical play. His having us "see" Stephen playing Cressida through reports from other characters cleverly leaves that event to our imagination.

Good as the cast is, this witty play with its serious undercurrent is lit by Gambon's performance. It has to be the best I've seen this year.

Written by Nicholas Wright
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Starring: Michael Gambon
With: Malcolm Sinclair, Lee Ingleby, Matthew Hickey, Charles Kay, Michael Legge, Daniel Brocklebank, Anthony Calf
Set Design: Bob Crowley
Lighting Design: Paul Pyant
Sound Design: Fergus O'Hare
Music: Richard Sisson
Running time: Two hour thirty minutes with an interval
A production of The Almeida Theatre Company at The Albery Theatre
St Martin's Lane London WC2
Box Office: 020 7304 7822
Booking to June 10th 2000
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 4th April 2000 performance

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