Writer: Jessica Swale
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Dominic Corr
Celebrity is hardly a new concept. Only a few centuries ago, one of England’s first actresses would help shape the very pop culture we all hate to adore. Nell Gwynn; orange merchant, turned actress, turned mistress to the King, was more than her titles. She was a living, breathing woman who defied the norm of the day and is the titular character in Jessica Swale’s Olivier award-winning comedy.
Whether it be breaking the fourth wall, incorporating the audience or extending the stage into the crowd, tonight’s show is playful. Precisely the way to describe not only the show but the character of Nell. Determined, complex and witty, this production does what British theatre does best; disguise all this razor-sharp talent amid the realms of farce and fancy.
Emily Baines musical direction, while not integral to the narrative is welcome, uplifting the production. It is Baines and Charlotte Broom’s choreographed Jig which gets the heart pumping and excites the limbs.
Exceptional on stage chemistry is evident all around. Pitt-Pulford (Nell), Ben Righton (King Charles II) and Sam Marks (Charles Hart) all seamlessly react and play with one another. Righton’s interpretation of King Charles II is rude – rude in the most delightful sense and played tantalisingly straight.
The most striking aspect of Swales’ writing is how the characters don’t feel forced. Even a production, which at its core is feminist in nature, and with such caricatured parts has all the roles fully fleshed out. There are shared aspects with other comedies set in the theatre, similar exaggerations but we form a deeper bond with Nell Gwynn. Perhaps, as is the point, this is to do with how Nell is considered ‘one of us.’ The rabble who, like Nell, find joy in the love, light and laughter life can offer.
One might draw issue with a lack of gravity from Gwynn, a woman who has suffered. This level of frivolity from someone who continues to suffer the pangs of desperation, death, and doubts following her, jars, we don’t get to see the weight of these issues. At times, it all feels slightly soft.
Conversely, it is in Pitt-Pulford performance and Swale’s writing that Gwynn doesn’t need to have these emotions painted out so clearly. It’s a touch subtler and highlights Swale’s writing. Woman are real people. Their emotions not painted on the stage in a two-dimensional form, or at least not by accomplished playwrights such as Swale. Often laughter, not mood lighting or shrieking misery, convey the darkest struggles that lie within more clearly. Poignant humour is at the heart of this story.
Regardless of interpretations of character; Nell Gwynn is undoubtedly clever, humorous, akin to theatre-of-old and should be widely regarded and shared. What may appear at first glance to be a Restoration comedy, has a fresh delivery. Yes, it has some Carry-On Shakespeare elements to it, but a British comedy would hardly feel right if it didn’t. Never be put off by appearance, while the real story of Nell rests in folklore, the English Touring Theatre’s success is real and deserved.
Runs until 22 April 2017 | Image: Contributed