Tucked away in the Plaza Suite at The Stag with a performance start time of 5pm, this performance felt like a little secret, tucked away as the penultimate event of the Sevenoaks Summer Festival - a little island of theatrical calm and beauty in a busy world. It is this notion that Louise Jameson starts with: a desert island. ‘Shakespeare’s Mistress’ is her ‘Desert Island Discs’ of Shakespeare crossed with a sort of ‘An Audience With...’ type delivery. Opening with a soliloquy of Juliet’s from ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the audience are on her side right from the start. As soon as the speech is over she breaks out of character to talk directly to us and freely acknowledges the audacity she has in delivering a speech written for a 14 year old at her age. Despite Louise not being the right age for many of the pieces she selects, she makes them work. She brings a stillness and a grace to Shakespeare that is rarely seen. We do not see the 14 year old girl struggling to make a decision. We see a woman coming to terms with her emotions. We see a brand new take on every extract she delivers from Hermione in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ to Gertrude in ‘Hamlet’. We see her describing love as Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ to Rosalind in ‘As You Like It’. We see the emotion brought to the fore. We see her before, during and after every speech, thus seeing the entire acting process: the preparation, the delivery and the follow through at the end. Every piece was accessible and beautiful, the words and delivery doing all the work. Even her tributes to Pennant Roberts, Nicholas Courtney and Elisabeth Sladen were short, moving but most importantly from the heart.
In a performance where the actor is as exposed as Louise is, just her and a near blank stage, it is easy for the audience to feel as exposed as the performer. Louise is clearly a seasoned performer and not only knows how to play a crowd but also how to make us all feel at ease and all feel party to this little island of calm. Even down to plucking an audience member out to help her deliver a scene from ‘As You Like It’, an experience which would normally be nerve wracking and make everyone shift uncomfortably, but she used it to hammer home one of her points: Shakespeare works well as long as it’s delivered from the heart. She took that moment to teach about iambic pentameter and not one of us felt insulted or patronised. We all learnt. Even those with a theatre background learnt something from the performance. A piece that is entertaining, emotional and powerful. To me this show is as Louise herself, quoting Shakespeare said “a good deed in a naughty world”.
After the interval was a complete contrast. ‘Pulling Faces’, a one woman play of women behaving badly, of Bridget Jones 30 years on was how the piece was sold to us. It must be said while Bridget Jones isn’t my cup of tea, my curiosity as to how ten or twelve different characters were going to be played by one woman was too good an opportunity to miss. A story of one woman approaching her 55th birthday, divorced, trying to retain her career and “falling apart at the seams” it seemed like it would be a straight forward comedy. Then throw into the mix that the love interest, the nemesis, the plastic surgeon, the heroine’s agent, the best mates, the daughter, the builder, the ex husband, all the parts were played by Louise Jameson. This was a true theatrical tour de force. Seamlessly and seemingly without effort she swapped characters just at the turn of the head of with a change of posture. No big costume changes, no big set changes, it was all in the acting. It was an education just watching her work. The scene in a club between Joanne (the heroine) and The Love Interest (son of her nemesis) in anything else would have been funny but a very straight forward scene but with Louise playing both roles a pace and a slickness was brought to it that isn’t often seen. So much comedy was to be had just from the swapping of characters. It wasn’t just funny, it was emotionally engaging too. We were on the side of Joanne right from the beginning, right the way through to the end. We are pleading with her not to take the course of action she threatens to take (a complete face lift and body overhaul) and are moved by her every decision. Every single character, even if only around for mere seconds was wholly convincing. This performance was what all theatre should be. That is not to say it should all be one-hander/one-act pieces, but all theatre should carry the audience along with them, be wholly convincing and full of a commitment to the story in hand.
Louise in ‘Shakespeare’s Mistress’ said that she thinks she’s getting a bit past it to keep touring the country in shows. This double bill proves that she is a long way away from that and if she does stop any time soon it will be a loss to the theatre world. Superb performances, excellently judged and a perfect small scale setup that deserves to be seen by more people. It played in Sevenoaks to a relatively small house, but that almost became a virtue of the show. It became our little secret, our little gem to treasure. If you see this show heading anywhere vaguely approaching your neck of the woods, fight to get a ticket. It will be two of the best hours of your life with a truly engaging performer. Her tour continues and for those that live a little farther afield than the UK, she brings ‘Pulling Faces’ to the Gallifrey One convention in Los Angeles next year.