The Divine Mrs S Review

Hampstead Theatre – until 27th April 2024

Reviewed by Celia Armand Smith


,credit: Johan Persson

Sarah Siddons was known as the Queen of Drury Lane and was one of the most respected and celebrated actors of the 18th and 19th centuries. April De Angelis’ new play, thought to be the first written about Siddons, takes us back to 1800 when the 40 (ish) year old actress is battling grief, boring roles, and powerlessness in a man’s world.

In this backstage comedy, we see Siddons (as she was referred to by most and played by Rachael Stirling) at the mercy of her brother, John Philip Kemble (Dominic Rowan), who owned the theatre, managed the plays, and chose her roles, while her husband collected the money and invested it badly, and signed all her contracts. After one too many roles playing sad adulterous women, she decides to engage some main character energy and take control of her life.

The play opens on Siddons and Kemble on stage performing. Kemble is bellowing out his lines and emphasising all the wrong bits – it’s panto-esque and I can’t help but snort with laughter. The set by Lez Brotherston centres the dressing room used by Siddons, with stage flats, and a curtain behind. The curtains open and close for performances and we see the back of the actors as they play to an imagined audience. It is a great device for setting the backstage action.

Whilst desperate to escape the monotony and grief of her life, Siddons, aided by her sweet new maid Patti (Anushka Chakravarti), meets a female playwright, Joanna Bailie (played by a fantastic Eva Feiler), who writes proper female characters. However, things go awry not once but twice when her brother’s fragile male ego put a stop to her efforts.

The plot at times stumbles, but the brilliant cast does not. Rachael Stirling is mesmeric in the role of Siddons, and is a calm and comedic counter to the loud and ridiculous Kemble played by Dominic Rowan. Eva Feiler is fabulous in many roles from the female playwright, to a fencing instructor, to a desperate wife on the run from her abusive husband. Anna Mackmin’s production is exaggerated and over the top, everyone playing a caricature with fun effect. The laughs are plentiful and the comedy doesn’t grow old. Do I feel like I know more about Sarah Siddons at the end? Not really. However, it’s a highly enjoyable couple of hours spent watching incredible talent, plus it highlights how little has changed for women on stage (and screen). Men are still largely in charge and there is still a scarcity of central roles of women past a certain age, even now, 200 years later.