If Katie Elin-Salt was in any doubt then the opening night of Celebrated Virgins was a moment to feel assured. Her excellent play, telling the story of the Ladies of Llangollen, was received by way of rapturous applause at its conclusion. And deservedly so. For this exploration of the relationship between Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, for the first time from their points of view, is full of heart, humour and hope.
It is to all intents and purposes a costume drama. Yet it is also much more than that. The whole creative team have worked hard to ensure that this is a truly immersive experience. The audience is transported immediately back in time thanks to the glorious attention to detail. From the dark oak wood stage to the corseted costumes, the realism of the props to the flute- and mandolin-infused soundtrack, the representation of the story’s 18th century setting is second to none. But it really comes to life under the direction of Eleri B. Jones, who utilises all of these elements within the intimacy of Theatr Clwyd’s new performance space, The Mix, to create a show that feels both authentic and contemporary. Such is the vibrancy that Jones injects into Elin-Salt’s script that the audience does not simply see the characters on stage; they come to share in their experience. This ensures maximum empathy, which is also a strength of the first-person narrative.
In placing Sarah (Heather Agyepong) front and centre from the beginning, Elin-Salt ensures that this first-person perspective remains the focus throughout. She subtly reveals the ways in which wealth and patriarchy attempt to take over her story through Sarah’s adoptive parents William (Seán Carlsen) and Lady Betty (Emma Pallant). An incident with the former, which rightly comes with a trigger warning, is a particularly visceral moment that is deeply uncomfortable to witness. Yet from or in spite of these moments, the quiet strength of Sarah persists in both determining her own self-defined path as well as forging a relationship with Eleanor (Victoria John). From their first meeting, it is clear that there is a spark between them. Agyepong and John allow the two to bounce off one another with ease, the dialogue zipping between them with a playfulness that captures the gentle blossoming of romance. There is a montage early on that is wonderfully cinematic that contributes enormously to the beautiful development of their love. Both characters have their vices and virtues, and both actors tease these out in ways that strengthen their relationship. For example, the prim and proper façade of Eleanor is broken at times by a vulnerability and fear, brought about by Sarah’s emergent steeliness from behind a more sensitive and considerate guise. They open one another’s eyes and hearts not only to themselves but others. It is lovely to watch, and draws admiration aplenty.
Emma Pallant is deserving of special mention for her star turn as the Ladies’ housekeeper Mary. Her monologue at the beginning of act two is hilariously unbecoming, gutturally frank, but also delightfully poignant. It’s a real scene stealer which will also strike a particular chord with listeners of The 98% podcast. For Katie Elin-Salt’s sardonic wit and truth-filled personality can’t help but burst through the pages of the script here. They are delivered masterfully by the exuberant Pallant who appears to relish the chance to address the audience with this most excellent of dialogue. It is but one instance in what is a superb whole: a story that Elin-Salt declares “has taken nearly 300 years for it to be put on a stage”. This may be a bewildering fact, but on this evidence, I should think that it was just waiting for the right person to come along to tell it.
Celebrated Virgins runs at Theatr Clwyd until the 4th June. Tickets can be booked by clicking here.