Cambridge Devised Theatre at the Headgate Theatre Colchester
It's that Shakespearean shape-shifter Robin Goodfellow we see first, making a very Puckish entrance, upstaging a nervous Ellen Terry. She is preparing her first one-woman show, an illustrated lecture on The Women of Shakespeare, and she will spend the next hour frantically annotating the notes on her lectern, fretting that the memory is not yet in the body, but only in the head, agonising over the title.
Meanwhile our merry wanderer, her number one fan, will assume a dozen other roles – father, lover, critic, parrot – as we follow her life and career from the age of six, through the Lyceum years to her present American tour.
The show, devised by the actors from a script by Ros Connelly, is full of clever devices. The Victorian venticelli, "slanderous tongues" for the stalls-bar gossip, and the disembodied voices, such as that great Man of Letters Bernard Shaw, coming on like a surprise guest on This Is Your Life. A huge cast of supporting characters vie for our attention, her leading men and her lovers – Godwin, Watts, Reade, Irving, little Teddy who grows up to be Edward Gordon Craig.
Alan Mooney was a magical presence as the voice of them all; changing character in a moment. I liked his adoring echo – of the Desdemona speech, for instance - and the all-too-brief snatch of the "deliberate" Henry Irving style, and the Dresserly glimpse backstage. His Common Man Stage Manager was perhaps the least successful of his voices, but a useful extension of his "auditor" role.
Helen Cartwright was entirely convincing both as innocent girl and as grande dame. Her voice was wonderfully rich, and her thoughtful Terry interpretations of the great roles was fascinating to hear. She wore a striking gown – Miss Terry was so fond of her frocks – which recalled many of the roles for which she became famous, the first actress, we're told, to treat Ophelia, Portia, Lady M and the rest as real women.
It's a lot to pack in to 70 minutes: the incredibly colourful private life, the stage career, her thoughts on Shakespeare's heroines. We were left wishing for more [and granted it in a post-show talk-out] – perhaps a companion piece focusing solely on those American lectures.this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews