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BRIGHTON FRINGE: Pretty, Witty Nell – Rotunda Theatre Brighton: Bubble

Reviewer: Thom Punton

Written and directed by: Ryan J-W Smith

Performed by: Hannah Attfield

Based on the true story of courtesan to King Charles II, Nell Gwyn, Pretty, Witty Nell is an impressive one-woman show written in rhyming iambic verse by Ryan J-W Smith. Hannah Attfield takes on the role here, enlivening the story of a 17th century woman with many a scandalous tale to tell. It’s a bawdy, intimate glimpse into a life under the royal covers.

As the audience takes their seats, Nell is there already, attired in red corset and white gown, hawking oranges and joking with the people in the front row. She comes across as a simple trader, earning her keep, but there is of course much more than meets the eye. The play itself starts and Nell unfolds her life story. Though she is youthful and full of life she has the circumspection of an old woman, like a ghost looking from beyond the grave.

Her humour is sexually suggestive from the start and throughout Nell is examining her role as sexual object and the great advantages it has won her: to be in bed with the king, to sire his children brings with it a proud boastfulness and empowerment. She mocks historical figures like Cromwell, who she calls “a bible-basher”, a puritanical “pleasure-hating murderer”, before donning a black wig and aping his anti-fun rhetoric. Nell gleefully represents the antithesis of the Cromwellian programme and as such embodies a modern, libertarian, sex-positive attitude.

Though it’s a personal story of plying the trade her mother taught her, becoming an actress and finally gaining the attention of the king, it doubles as a fascinating history lesson of England at a time of great change. Filtered through Nell’s eyes we have a glimpse of what living in that time would be like, the emotion aroused by the constant political upheaval. The play’s strengths however lie in the more personal parts. At times it can feel like ticking boxes – the plague, the great fire of London, name-dropping Pepys and Dryden – whilst the lived experience of this person is where we find the most compelling portions.

Her relationship with Charles is one of secrecy, jealousy and competitiveness, fighting to be his favourite, mocking the other women who come along, like the noble lady Louise from Brittany whose accent she spitefully butchers. She swigs brandy and becomes melancholy, looking back over a life as a disgraced woman with a mother who died in a ditch. Attfield ably swings between humours in what is a spellbinding, accomplished performance.

Smith’s objective in his Rogue Shakespeare company seems to be to revive the rhythm and richness of language achieved through the Bard’s iambic corpus; and the writing here definitely carries a similar spirit, though on the whole it’s much simpler and easier to understand, without the cryptic flights of fancy and lost usage. It’s a noble project and breathes new life into a kind of versification that is often needlessly assumed to be the preserve of one playwright.

Runs until 1 June 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Bawdy and intimate

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