The Bitches Ball

Brendan Deeds finds fun in Penny Dreadful's riotous play

As the audience shuffle into the theatre and finds their seats the five cast members of The Bitches Ball are still and silent.

A figure in the centre, draped in grey rags, sits limp, crutches by her sides, a bucket near her feet while around her bodies lie like marionettes waiting for their moment. The lights dim then swell once more…

The shrouded figure drags the bucket beneath her raggedy dress and proceeds to do one of the longest pees since Austin Powers was first defrosted.

The Bitches BallThe sound effect is realistic enough to have the audience laughing and squirming at the same time.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Penny Dreadful’s fun, frenzied and fiendishly rude romp through the life and times of Mary Robinson, one of the 18th century’s most colourful characters.

Robinson (1757-1800) was born in poverty but  found fame and infamy as both a great actress on the London stage and the mistress of the Prince of Wales.

Paralysed at the age of 26, she concentrated on her poetry and was profoundly admired by poets such as Coleridge.

An interesting and complex character, Robinson’s tumultuous life has been recreated by Penny Dreadful in a suitably riotous form.

Their slapdash brand of  physical theatre with garish costumes, flamboyant characters (with some mere grotesques) is well suited to evoking the 18th century with its dandies, their extravagant attire and fascination with artifice.

Told in a series of flashbacks, we segue seamlessly from Robinson's early poetic promise at school, to her rise in London’s high society and her descent into the seedy world of sexual exploitation.

The Bitches BallMira Dovreni is superb as the protagonist. She convinces an audience of Robinson’s basic innocence and naivety while also displaying coquettish charms.

Such is the standard, Dovreni’s fellow actors threaten to upstage her during several scenes.

Sarah Ratheram has two attempts, first as the teacher who spots Robinson’s poetic talent and later as her repugnant, debt-riddled husband.

Ratheram impresses in both roles. Paschale Stratton’s performance as the Prince’s doddering and disapproving servant is a wonderful parody of Sir John Gielgud’s turn as the Dudley’s Moore’s butler in Arthur.

However it is Ian Street’s Prince of Wales who steals the show. Playing young George as a fickle, flouncing fool he gets all the laughs in every scene he’s in.

The comedy is a large part of the play’s appeal, but could easily be its undoing. The Bitches Ball seems to revel in a tirade of schoolboy jokes: urination gags, sexual reference and cheap innuendos get the belly laughs but threaten to turn the play into nothing more than an adult pantomime.

The Bitches BallWhat the play lacks in wit it makes up for in ingenuity.

With such a minimal set everything is transformed. The curtains become a bed which becomes a horse-drawn carriage. This in turn becomes a wall, which becomes the frame for a portrait.

Despite its playful nature, the play deals with weighty issues - not the least exposing the 18th century’s hypocrisy in hiding private vice beneath public virtue.

Robinson is branded a whore for her sexual conduct, but admits to doing in public only what the gentry do in private.

It is the mercurial identity of Robinson which is the play's greatest creation. She was both  exploited and exploiter, artist and prostitute, she was created by the age she lived in and  destroyed by it.

Once lauded by the press, she was vilified and now is virtually unknown. As a critique on the fickle nature of celebrity, The Bitches Ball finishes as a moving allegory for our age.