Nell Gwynn by The English Theatre Company is at The King’s Theatre this week and capturing the hearts of audiences just as Nell herself captured the heart of King Charles II as his favourite mistress.
Historical plays can by their very nature become rather dull performances in the wrong hands (a bit like history in the hands of the wrong teacher) and an historical restoration comedy can be on even thinner ground if the script, performers and comedy timing are not perfect. “Nell Gwynn” by Jessica Swale and directed by Christopher Luscombe has no danger of ever falling into either of those performance horrors…this is a wonderfully written “restoration comedy” full of humour and life with outstanding performances by everyone on stage…simply a joy to watch.
Much of the success of any play centred around the singular character of its title must go to the leading character, and here, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell Gwynn is on terrific form and gives us the sort of Nell that many of us probably imagined…a woman full of life, confidence, bawdy humour and not in the least bit ashamed of her upbringing in poverty or how she once made her living.
Nell’s life starts to change when she swaps her famous orange selling days for a life in the theatre taking advantage of a new decree by Charles II that allowed women to perform on the English stage for the first time. Our company of actors are wonderfully played by all, and that Shakespearian device of performing a play within a play works perfectly here – particularly in a traditional theatre like “The King’s”.
There are a few stand out roles in our theatrical cast – Sam Marks as Charles Hart and Clive Hayward as Manager of the Company to name but two. Esh Alladi as Edward Kynaston – an actor specialising in women’s stage roles and who has studied every aspect of acting possible, including “the language of the fan” - has a superb over the top role and is simply outstanding as he defends the integrity of his art and to him the coarseness of “a woman playing a woman”. Esh Alladi as Edward is a wonderful counterpoint to Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell throughout the show.
Contrasting with the life of our theatricals “on our stage, performing on their stage” is the court of King Charles II, his courtiers, Queen Catherine, and a mistress or two. Ben Righton manages to get that light comedy touch right with his portrayal of Charles II here without losing any of the regal splendour that the character needs. This is an insightful portrayal of a King who has watched his own father executed (Charles I) and knows only too well that his Royal position is by invite only. There is a nice chemistry on stage between Charles II and Nell Gwynn, a playfulness that sees them constantly teasing one another, and both actors (Laura and Ben) have that and the comedy timing needed for these roles perfect.
This is a wonderfully written play that has some great character roles for performers – Pepter Lunkuse, Joanne Howarth, Pandora Clifford, Nicolas Bishop (naming only a few here ) and it is obvious that everyone is just having such pleasure on stage, and that is shining through in the performances.
Like all good works, there are many different levels to “Nell Gwynn” the play. At its surface it is a joyful restoration comedy, but there are many social, religious and political references just beneath that surface that indicate a darker world than the light of the Royal court and the lightness of the comedy.
There are no set changes in this performance, but that does not matter here as the use of a stage set on stage doubles easily as the Royal rooms, and designer Hugh Durrant has created a rich and opulent looking set that gives us an idea of the lavishness of a Royal wealth and power. Very clever use of angles of sight and the illusion of greater depth to space than there really is show that Hugh Durrant is a very skilled designer. Great costumes from our design team also just finished off that final piece of theatrical illusion.
It is sometimes easy to forget too that the music to this performance is played live by musicians performing on period instruments such as a theorbo. I say easy to forget, as the musical performers blend so well into the overall story both sound and vision wise. I have always had a liking for music from this period and for the sound of the lute family of instruments, and composer Nigel Hess has done an amazing job here of recreating the feel of music from this period without actually copying from the period (one song is based around an original piece).
Nell Gywnn was the winner of the 2016 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and it is easy to understand why. This is one of those nights at the theatre which finished far too quickly and left everyone in the audience feeling good and wanting more. For me, the mark of a great show is one that you would happily just go back into the theatre and watch again, and this was one of those performances. “Nell Gwynn” deserves all of the great reviews that it has been getting on its tour.
Review by Tom King