DramaReviewSouth East

Nell Gwynn – Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford

Writer: Jessica Swale
Director: Christopher Luscombe
Reviewer: Steve Turner

Anyone wanting historical accuracy should look away now. Anyone after an evening of fun, frolics, singing, dancing and general merriment better get themselves a ticket for Nell Gwynn now, before they all go!

In the programme notes, writer Jessica Swale says that she wants the play to be an entertaining homage to Nell Gwynn and that’s exactly what we get.

Charting her rise to the top of the profession and to the King’s bedchamber, what might be missing in terms of facts is more than made up for in the telling of the tale. Drawing on stories which have endured to the present day, such as Nell Gwynn’s reference to herself as the ‘Protestant Whore’, and the rumour of the laxatives fed surreptitiously to a dramatic rival, we see a side to her character that would explain why the people loved her.

Laura Pitt-Pulford strikes a delicate balance in the title role. There might be a tendency to assume brashness and vulgarity from someone raised by a brothel madam, a sometime prostitute and, at the start of the play, a lowly orange seller.  Pitt-Pulford brings out just enough vulnerability and self-doubt to make her later protestations about not being on the make seem believable.

Sam Marks as the actor Charles Hart is suitably charming, slightly condescending at first, but soon captivated by our heroine. With his encouragement, Nell joins the cast of the King’s Company and this is where the fun begins.

Nell soon charms the rest of the company with her wittiness and her bawdiness, well not quite the rest of the company as Edward Kynaston, used to playing the women’s parts, has his nose put out of joint by Nell. Complaining that no woman could understand how to act the part of a woman, Esh Alladi steals a few scenes, but keeps the character in check, just camp enough and avoiding overplaying, keeping us focussed on the real centre of attention.

Ben Righton’s soft mellifluous tones suit our perception of Charles II, a charmer yet fully aware of what happened to his father, still wary of politicians and reluctant to make too many decisions lest the same fate befall him. At first intrigued by Nell, and when rejected by her, totally fascinated, Righton’s portrayal makes it easy to understand how the King could fall for a commoner.

With a fabulous supporting cast, including Michael Cochrane as the scheming, yet ultimately desperate to please Arlington, and Nicholas Bishop as the seemingly endlessly indecisive playwright John Dryden, the action never stops.  Taking in some single entendres (there’s really only the one meaning here!), some riotous songs and some wonderful interplay between the characters, this is a superb romp through a few years in the life of Nell Gwynn, made all the more entertaining by the live music and the enthusiasm with which the cast present the musical numbers.

Runs until 1 April 2016 then continues to tour | Image:  Contributed


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The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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