April De Angelis’ new comedy about the eighteenth-century theatrical tragedian, Sarah Siddons, mines its topical theme about idealized standards of femininity.

Majestically portrayed by Rachael Stirling, Siddons battles to be simultaneously domestic and professional, sublime and ordinary, in short - The Divine Mrs S.

The part anachronistic, part modern dialogue is rambunctious, but darker questions about Siddons’ sacrifices and compromises struggle to command attention.

Brent & Kilburn Times: Rachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan in The Divine Mrs S at Hampstead TheatreRachael Stirling and Dominic Rowan in The Divine Mrs S at Hampstead Theatre (Image: Johan Persson)

In Siddons’ society, actresses were canny about how to use the arts to manipulate popular opinion; Siddons built her reputation as a faithful wife to her feckless actor husband [not portrayed here] and devotion to her children.

De Angelis dramatizes a crisis phase in her career following the deaths of two of her seven children and her subsequent attempts to wrest power from her less talented actor brother John Kemble [Dominic Rowan – relishing the vainglorious role], who managed the Drury Lane theatre, choosing the plays and – despite her punchy push-backs – controlling her finances.

Enter a roll-call of caricatures who barge into her dressing room, the women to fawn over her, the men to exploit: chauvinist critic Boaden, sleazy artist and suitor Thomas Lawrence, [Gareth Snook], asylum runaway Clara, neglected playwright Joanna Baillie [Eva Feiler – pleasingly intense as both], who wrote De Montfort - a play that Siddons championed for its strong female lead role, the overbearing censor’s wife Mrs Larpent [Sadie Shimmin] and Siddons’ loyal assistant Patti [Anushka Chakravarti].

Brent & Kilburn Times: The Divine Mrs S runs at Hampstead Theatre until April 27The Divine Mrs S runs at Hampstead Theatre until April 27 (Image: Johan Persson)

Part Blackadder, part feminist rally cry, the tone never quite settles. A dark moment like Pattis’ attempted rape by Kemble is engulfed in the mix. The production tries too hard to have it all and raises questions about the dramatic appeal of seeing women suffer that could be better explored.

Fortunately, a voltage performance from Rachael Stirling draws enough focus away from the gaps and inconsistencies.

With a dreamy backstage set designed by Lez Brotherston - all luxuriant cream and a picture-book suggestion of a proscenium arch - intimacy and magical allure are cleverly evoked and meta scenes and spoofed dialogue are well framed.

Anna Mackmin’s direction is pacey and many lines are blisteringly funny.

The Divine Mrs S runs at Hampstead Theatre until April 27.