The Divine Mrs S at Hampstead Theatre review: Rachael Stirling is imperious but this in-jokey play disappoints

Anushka Chakravarti, Rachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan in The Divine Mrs S (Johan Persson)
Anushka Chakravarti, Rachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan in The Divine Mrs S (Johan Persson)

Rachael Stirling’s imperious, high-comic performance as Sarah Siddons is the saving grace of this aimless and tiresomely in-jokey play.

Writer April De Angelis celebrates the 18th century actress as a pioneer in command of her own image and craft, kicking against the patriarchal dominance of her feckless offstage husband and her idiot brother Philip Kemble (Dominic Rowan), her manager and co-star at Drury Lane.

De Angelis playfully supposes how neglected female writer Joanna Baillie came to pen the play De Montfort for Siddons, and how the wife of the official censor of drama shaped Georgian culture. All the women are Siddons stans: all the men want to shag, subjugate or exploit her.

De Angelis explores all of this in an arch, anachronistic, gag-a-minute script that’s left to meander without pacing or purpose by director Anna Mackmin. Many of the jokes are very funny but they rob the story of weight.

Rachael Stirling and Dominc Rowan in The Divine Mrs S (Johan Persson)
Rachael Stirling and Dominc Rowan in The Divine Mrs S (Johan Persson)

The deaths of two of Siddons’ seven children and Kemble’s attempted rape of her maid (Anushka Chakravarti) are either played for laughs or smothered by them. Siddons’s radical performance of Hamlet in Dublin is an excuse for playful swordplay.

This show is also a love-hate letter to theatre itself. As in Opening Night at the Gielgud, the audience is paying to listen to people wang on about how fascinating and difficult their jobs are.

It's a smugly knowing experience from the start. Designer Lez Brotherston puts Siddons’ Drury Lane dressing room front and centre, with the stage behind. We first see Stirling and Rowan from the back, spoofing melodramatic, declamatory 18th century acting.

But surprise! When they turn round, the histrionics are only dialled down a notch or two. The ironic, panto-style performances of most of the cast make Stirling’s mannered, self-involved interpretation of Siddons seem almost subtle. Almost.

This is Stirling’s métier, though, as her terrific turn in the otherwise misfiring Private Lives at the Donmar last year showed. She excels at characters who know they are acting, constantly aware of their own glamour, of hitting their marks and their punchlines.

Censor’s wife Anna (Sadie Shimmin) says she’d be captivated by Siddons talking about anything “even rubbish”. Later, Sterling compellingly runs through Siddons’ household budget.

But her first-person asides are as clumsy as insider references to the mock-Shakespeare play Vortigern. Most of the performances are broad and caricatured. The play bumbles towards an ending, stalls, and then gives us a big chunk of Macbeth. Siddons’s story should be better served than this. Disappointing.

Hampstead Theatre, to April 27; buy tickets here