Review - Emilia at the Vaudeville Theatre

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The Strand is suddenly thrillingly alive with women's stories. Hot on the heels of Dolly Parton's 9 to 5 the Musical, that brings a 1980s story of female office emancipation from a bullying male boss to the Savoy, came Waitress, arriving at the Adelphi Theatre from Broadway, which had as one of its selling points the fact that its lead creative team of writers, director and choreographer were all women.

And now, right next door at the Vaudeville, there's Emilia - a new play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm that not only has an all-female cast and entirely female creative team, but is also brought to the West End by a team of four female co-producers.

It's an amazing moment - and a cause for multiple celebrations, even if the play itself hadn't been that good. Fortunately, though, it actually is.

Originally commissioned by and premiered at Shakespeare's Globe last summer, where it ran for just 11 performances, it is a vibrant history play about one of Shakespeare's contemporaries Emilia Bassano Lanier, who may have been one of his muses - and, it is suggested here, a poet that Shakespeare named a character in his play Othello after and even may have borrowed lines from.

It's just the sort of rambunctious story that plays well at the Globe - full of incident, historical detail, musical interludes and audience involvement. But how does it play in a conventional Victorian theatre?

There may be a rough-edged quality to Nicole Charles's pacy production, but this is a play that speaks to today, as a woman finds her own story and the voice to tell it with. As fiercely embodied by not one but three actors - Saffron Coomber, Adelle Leonce and Clare Perkins - she comes alive with passion and conviction.

A terrific ensemble cast around them play multiple roles each, including male figures like William Shakespeare (Charity Wakefield) and Lord Thomas Howard (Jackie Clune), and turn the theatre into an ecstatic expression of female empowerment.

It ends with the rallying cry, "If they try to burn you, may your fire be stronger than theirs so you can burn the whole fucking house down". The Vaudeville, built in 1870, is about to celebrate its 150th birthday. I hope no one takes that statement literally and it survives to do so.

Emilia is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 15th June. 

Emilia tickets are available now. 

Originally published on

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