Penny Dreadful, The Bitches Ball

Review in Issue 19-1 | Spring 2007

Penny Dreadful is a new company that takes lesser-known historical characters as a source for devised theatre making. The subject of their first production is 18th-century writer, actress, and prototype feminist Mary Robinson. Immortalised by Joshua Reynolds, and renowned for her portrayal of Perdita in A Winter’s Tale (which brought her to the attention of the young Prince of Wales), Mary famously became the mistress of said Prince (later King George IV) but suffered a mysterious crippling illness in her mid-twenties – the play pursues the notion that this resulted from a miscarriage – and was rejected by her lover. Yet despite ill health, financial ruin, and the disapproval of respectable society, the ‘bold and disgraceful’ Mary lived on in proud independence to publish her writings worldwide.

Directed by Mick Barnfather of Complicite, The Bitches Ball is a good solid piece of theatre, with a sharp script, strong physical ensemble work, and hearty Commedia-influenced clowning. Mira Dovreni is just right as Mary, and the other four cast members play all the other characters and the chorus. Each has a scene focused around their talents: Pascale Straiton is her usual lovely clown self as Mary’s elocution teacher (shades of Pygmalion), and Ian Street makes a wonderfully petulant Prince George. The design is excellent: velvets and silks in magenta, old gold, powder blue; looking glasses and folding screens, high-rise wigs, cloaks and petticoats whipped on and off as characters morph from scene to scene. Almost everything happens in view on stage – and indeed I think the piece could move easily into any setting, indoor or out. On the evening I saw the play, it was particularly pleasurable to be part of an audience of young people who gave the company a rousing ovation. Historical drama is dead, long live historical drama!

Presenting Artists
Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. Nov 2006

This article in the magazine

Issue 19-1
p. 29