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Macready! Dickens’ Theatrical Friend at Jack Studio Theatre

William Charles Macready (1793-1873), as portrayed in this production by Mark Stratford, originally had his sights on the University of Oxford, and then the Bar, but through circumstances explained in the narrative ended up following his father into the world of theatre. The show credits him with having contributed to the establishment of various practices in the theatre – including the introduction of numbered seating in the stalls at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which he managed from 1841 to 1843, and full rehearsals for each and every character in a play, irrespective of how small the part.

Macready! Dickens’ Theatrical Friendwritten and performed by Mark Stratford
Macready! Dickens’ Theatrical Friend
written and performed by Mark Stratford.

Macready, or at least this version of him, comes across as the sort of man who wouldn’t be very happy at the number of long-running musicals in the West End in this day and age – his preference was for Shakespeare plays, which he had, Stratford tells the audience, restored to their ‘original’ texts, although it wasn’t clear to me what adapted texts theatres in the first half of the nineteenth century were using. But he was also happy to put on and star in more contemporary plays, though with so much biographical narrative to get through, extracts from Macready’s roles were kept quite brief.

Slightly confusingly, Stratford speaks of Macready interchangeably between the first and the third person, aside from the final moment in which he ‘converses’ with Macready and therefore uses the second person. Moderately paced, the storyline flows well, and with Macready credited as having introduced things like sound effects being realistic and commensurate with the scene, it’s just as well that this production includes details of that nature itself.

There’s no getting away from this show being, quite literally, drama about drama, and a meticulously researched one at that, not flinching from periods in Macready’s life when things were far from tickety-boo: of note were some provincial tours of UK theatres and, in 1849, the Astor Place Riot in New York City. As this show would have it, there was a dispute amongst local theatre patrons as to whether Macready, a Brit, was a better Shakespearean actor than American actor Edwin Forrest (1806-1872), and Stratford’s account maintains there were thirty-one deaths as a result of the riot.

Three chairs and a handful of props are all that is required to tell a story. There’s a heavy reliance on direct addresses to the audience, somewhat ironically as, according to this show, Macready had worked to change the then common practice of actors on stage always facing the audience, in favour of two or more actors engaging in dialogue and facing one another when doing so. Or, at the risk of being uncouth, if you ever feel you’ve been ignored by a company of actors on stage for an entire evening, it’s Macready’s fault.

Macready’s forthright opinions were a source of sharp humour, and at a time when there was some recent public interest in an apparent fallout between presenters of a live daytime television programme, the disagreements and personality clashes Macready faced in his day demonstrate some things just don’t change. An intriguing account of someone who should be better known given his impact on the theatrical world, this is a fascinating and insightful production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A universal tale of love, devotion. ambition and sacrifice, it is one of the most remarkable ever to come out of the theatre.

With humour, drama, emotion, and an array of characters, Stratford takes us on a journey through the fascinating world of Victorian theatre and the extraordinary, yet conflicted life of Macready; from his first tentative steps on stage in a tatty country theatre to his final ever performance at the mighty Drury Lane!

And, as this year marks the 150th anniversary of Macready’s death, the production also pays a timely tribute to a theatrical pioneer who did so much to influence our theatre of today.

Macready! Dickens’ Theatrical Friend
written and performed by Mark Stratford

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