Writer: Jessica Swale
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Lizz Clark
Saucy, witty and beautiful: Nell Gwynn must have been quite a woman to rise to fame from the level of a humble orange-seller and bewitch the heart of King Charles II. Jessica Swale’s warm-hearted comic play follows Nell from the moment she is ‘spotted’ and begins to act, through her affair with the king and new life in the public eye as one of his mistresses. The production has moved from the Globe to the West End, picked up the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and featured Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton as the enchanting Nell.
Stepping into the shoes of not only Gwynn, but also those two other talented actresses, is Laura Pitt-Pulford, who confidently leads a strong cast with her twinkling performance. Joyous songs and dances, accompanied in a historical style by onstage musicians, keep the tempo upbeat as we trot through the story. Staying truer to the spirit than to the letter of historical accuracy, the bawdy Restoration Comedy era is translated onto the modern stage as Carry-On-style farce, laden with innuendo and fourth-wall-breaking jokes.
This rollicking style really comes alive in the scenes where Nell’s theatre company rehearse, banter, joke – and debate the issue of women appearing onstage. Scene-stealing Esh Alladi is deliciously ironic as Edward Kynaston, the actor of women’s parts, determined that no woman could ever understand the art of his Desdemona. Nell herself gets some pointedly proto-feminist lines about how women are real people, not just the vapid, flimsy characters found in much of theatrical tradition, and the rest of the King’s Company seem more or less convinced by her arguments.
But, while it may feel good to hear those feminist sentiments, and the anachronistic references that pepper the script may keep the tone light and the laughs flowing, after a while it feels rather like eating candyfloss. Yes, it’s sweet, but it’s not entirely satisfying. Everything is very light in this play – even character death cannot weigh it down into seriousness for more than a moment. Swale’s modern, colloquial writing is pacy and easy to listen to, but it also contributes to the lack of gravity. It is rather disappointing that the excellent Pitt-Pulford is not given more opportunity to explore the dark and difficult parts of Nell’s life at times, to lend the play a more rounded-out feeling. Her rivalry with Charles’ other mistresses, for instance, is played for laughs with much more success than when – occasionally – it is taken seriously.
As a simple, light-hearted romp, however, Nell Gwynn is very successful. The ensemble give Pitt-Pulford a strong backing, especially the touching turn from Sam Marks as the actor who plucks Nell from obscurity, falls for her, and then has to give her up to King Charles. The monarch himself is played with tongue constantly in cheek by Ben Righton, while Pandora Clifford does sterling work: she is double-cast as both of Nell’s love rivals, and pitch-perfect as both.
Short of a couple of distractingly shadowy scenes, and a few finer points of song lyrics lost in musical exuberance, the show is technically smooth. Hugh Durrant’s designs are as lush as one of King Charles’s royal banquets, and the single set is used inventively so that each new scene feels fresh. Look elsewhere for historical accuracy and, frankly, depth, but this is a highly entertaining evening that audiences can simply sit back and enjoy.
Runs until 4 March 2017 | Image: Contributed