A delightful verse prologue, Restoration-style, sets the scene for “And All for Love,” Alison Lawrence’s carefully researched look at the first two women to appear on the English stage. The world premiere focuses on the progression from mentoring to friendship, rivalry and destruction between the actresses, Winifred Gosnell and Elizabeth Barry, while commenting on the changing stage conventions and acting styles of their times.
Until King Charles II called for women to replace boy thesps, young men had played all the female roles in English theater. In addition, up to the early 20th century, acting was much more declamatory and artificial. So, when Gosnell (Kelly McIntosh), some 200 years before her time, appears on stage and attempts a more naturalistic presentation, she falls by the wayside. This gives the ambitious Barry (Helen Taylor) the chance to brush her aside and become a star.
Lawrence draws a clear picture of the well-documented life of Barry as the ruthless diva who clawed her way to the top. Historical material about Gosnell is much more sparse.
A niece of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys (one of four roles brilliantly played by Michael Spencer-Davis), she is mentioned in his diaries as the maid who ran off to be an actress and was, at first, the more successful of the two women. Then she fades from view, apparently overshadowed by her rival.
The portrait of the catfight between the two is well done, but the play’s ending feels contrived and unrealistic, screaming for a rewrite. The episodic structure — a series of snapshots of the two careers on and off the stage –could also benefit from some rearrangement.
However, Spencer-Davis’ well-contrasted characterizations of various male roles do their part to keep audiences riveted.
Lawrence changes her style to fit various moments in the play, from the iambic pentameter of the prologue to the melodrama of the conclusion, while Eo Sharp’s set design provides workable areas for the play within the play, despite the cramped inner stage. Daryl Cloran’s direction is true to the spirit of the script, although neither the writing nor format involve the audience emotionally. The sense of distance from the characters appears to be the result of trying to thread the two actresses’ conflict too didactically into the theatrical history that brought them together.
Perhaps best considered as a work in progress, “And All for Love” provides an interesting but not totally involving evening of theater.