The Greatest Tragic Actress

“The best way to survive in this business is to adore every play you’re in!  “


“…It must be confessed that silence is the most flattering applause an actor can receive.”

Sarah Siddons

Anushka Chakravarti as Patti, Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons and Dominic Rowan as John Philip Kemble. (Photo: Johan Persson)

April de Angelis’s plays have explored early English actresses before with her work Playhouse Creatures  about the contemporaries of Nell Gwyn but in The Divine Mrs S she looks at the first female tragedian Mrs Sarah Siddons (Rachael Stirling).  Audiences turned up ready to cry and faint with white handkerchiefs, smelling salts and hartshorn.  Her depiction of Lady Macbeth had been known to stop the production there, such was her nervous exertion and the mirroring, hysterical response of the audience. 

We see her here pursued by the artist Thomas Lawrence (Gareth Snook) and in the National Gallery we have Thomas Gainsborough’s famously beautiful portrait of her (see below).   The Divine Mrs S opens with the rear view of the famous stage at Drury Lane; Lez Brotherston’s divinely detailed set is a feast of canvas backed flats and ropes, frames, pulleys and the swagged main curtain.    

Let Brotherston's Set. (Photo: Johan Persson)

This theatre is managed by Siddons’s younger brother Philip Kemble (Dominic Rowan) and we get an early example of his declaiming style of acting.  As an amateur critic appreciates later, to be said for it is that we can hear every word!  But his movement and expression is as wooden and motionless as the floorboards.  It wasn’t just Kemble’s style, this exaggeration was the acting genre for at least another 75 years.  Kemble’s sister is limited to parts where she is an unfaithful wife, or a courtesan or another woman fallen on hard times. She puts so much of herself into these parts that she is inclined to swoon and has to be carried to the couch behind the scenes. 

Rachael Stirling as Sarah Siddons and Dominic Rowan as Philip Kemble. (Photo: Johan Persson)

We meet her contemporaries her admirer and maid Patti (Anushka Chakravarti), the censor’s wife, the redoubtable Mrs Larpent (Sadie Shimmin) in a magnificently feathered black hat, a theatre fan Mrs Larpent’s daughter Clara (Eva Feiler), Boaden the critic (Gareth Snook) and assorted actors. 

There are numerous clever and humorous quips in Miss de Angelis’s script and the play moves at an exciting pace.  It is a treat for theatregoers with some of the asides tickling current theatre topics. There is social and political commentary as we are reminded that until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882, married women had no control over their income or property.  Despite her popularity Siddons is under the dramatic choice control of her brother.  She does get to play Hamlet on tour and her most celebrated role is Lady Macbeth.

Clara’s side story shows how women could be badly treated, their children taken away and jailed in institutions for the insane by brutal husbands.  Siddons loses two of her very young daughters one in infancy, another in childhood, and three more children do not outlive her out of seven.

Rachael Stirling as Mrs Siddons. (Photo: Johan Persson)

The star here is Diana Rigg’s daughter Rachael Stirling as Siddons, as charming and beautiful as her late mother for whom this part fits like the proverbial glove.  Her vocal range has depth and interest contrasting with her stage brother’s intentionally plodding acting.  This is a magnificent production with Anna Mackmin’s sure footed direction, Mark Henderson’s candle lit lighting, Max Pappenheim’s composition and sound and the gorgeous set and costumes. 

Very well done Hampstead!  Keep up the great work!

Thomas Gainsborough Mrs Siddons 1785 Oil on canvas, 126 x 99.5 cm Bought, 1862 NG683

Production Notes

The Divine Mrs S

Written by April de Angelis

Directed by Anna Mackmin




Rachael Stirling

Dominic Rowan

Gareth Snook

Anushka Chakravarti

Eva Feiler

Sadie Shimmin



Director: Anna Mackmin

Designer: Lez Brotherston

Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson

Composer and  Sound

Designer: Max Pappenheim

Fights: Maisie Carter


Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval

Booking to 27th April 2024


Hampstead Theatre 

Eton Avenue

Swiss Cottage

London NW3 3EU

Phone: 020 7722 9301


Tube: Swiss Cottage


by Lizzie Loveridge at

Hampstead Theatre Upstairs

on 28th March 2024