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Brighton Fringe 2024

Macready! Dickens’ Theatrical Friend

Stratford Productions

Genre: Biography, Storytelling, Theatre

Venue: Rotunda Theatre


Low Down

The reluctant 19th century acting star, charmingly portrayed by Mark Stratford.


William Macready lived a life less ordinary, of this there is no doubt.

Born towards the end of the eighteenth century, the son of an actor, he had high hopes of going to Oxford and eventually taking up a position at the bar. Many actors in current times struggle to make ends meet and it was not especially different for Macready’s father, who ended up in a debtor’s prison. This brought about a series of related events, resulting in William Macready having to leave Rugby and salvage the show his father was producing at the time. To everyone’s surprise, the seventeen year old showed himself to be a successful impresario.

With his attention to detail and demanding nature, Macready steadied the family’s finances, but this was really tantamount to a set of golden handcuffs, in that fiscal realities determined that he could not easily leave the acting profession. His frustration at not being able to pursue his chosen career did not dissipate. Macready started to find his own voice an actor though – a keen student, he had learned a repertoire of acting gestures which was the modus operandum of the day. However, once on stage, he adopted minimalist movements and naturalness ; he was perhaps a forerunner of modern acting techniques, even apparently indirectly influencing Stanislavski, whose work is regarding as essential reading by many actors to this day.

More success followed, with Macready taking lead roles in the premiere London theatres. He had plays written for him by, amongst others, Byron. But acting and theatre management did not carry a position in society, which he craved ; theatres had a culture of indolence, drinking and prostitution and he could not be considered to be a gentleman. He borrowed money to attend Oxford, but global events conspired against him and, instead, he chose to give the money to his brother to help his military career. Indeed, there is a hint of George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life in this tale.

Macready continued to be haunted by his father’s incarceration and toured the USA as a means to provide for his family. He had harboured aspirations of emigrating to the States, but during his final tour, his show fell foul of the modern day equivalent of culture wars and 31 people were killed at the Astor Place Riot. He therefore returned to England. He was admired by the public and critics alike and, as the show title suggests, was great friends with Charles Dickens : Nicholas Nickleby was dedicated to Macready. His legacy, however, was to introduce modern approaches to all aspects of theatre : rehearsals, design, lighting and striving for a sense of unity on stage.

Mark Stratford researched, wrote, designed, produced and directed this show : Macready would doubtless have been nodding his approval, for this is an impressive piece of work. The stage has a scattering of wooden chairs and a table and Stratford weaves between being the narrator and assuming various characters pertinent to the tale. All of this is achieved with effortless story-telling, Stratford’s pace driving the narrative seamlessly. It is all compelling and charming.

Macready wanted to be “anything other than an actor”, but would the world have remembered him as a barrister ? Almost certainly not, whereas his influence as an actor and impresario lives on to this day. I’ll leave the last words to Dickens, written to Macready in 1847 : “I know you for a great man”.