This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Following hot on the heels of Shakespeare in Love and Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Jessica Swale’s new play continues London theatre’s current preoccupation with itself, telling the story of the young woman who rose from the gutters to the stage and then to the bedchamber of King Charles II. In the late 17th Century, after a period of Puritan rule, the monarchy had been restored to the nation and the theatre had been restored to its people. A new phenomenon was emerging with “actoresses” playing female characters, displacing male actors in frocks such as the disgruntled Edward Kynaston (Greg Haiste). Today we complain that a public school education seems necessary to succeed as an actor, but, at that time, it was a very low profession, so up steps Nell, a “strumpet” used to selling oranges and other more personal goods on the streets. When Nell emerges from the audience that is standing around the stage, we have a perfect marriage between a play and the venue that is hosting it, becoming more so when the delightful Gugu Mbatha-Raw claims the production as her own. Her Nell has a feisty spirit and a natural openness capable of bursting the bubbles of both theatrical pretentiousness and royal pomposity. Nell catches the eye of leading actor Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) and becomes at home on the stage immediately. She is quickly telling aspiring playwright John Dryden (Graham Butler) how to write, he being fearful of turning out plays that “have a beginning and an end and a big pause in the middle”. Swale’s play has a beginning and an end and something like a big party in the middle. David Struzaker’s vain but kindly Charles II is an avid theatregoer who becomes Nell’s most fervent admirer. He displays his fondness for his pet dog, named Oliver Cromwell (a credible performance by Monnie, a King Charles Spaniel of course) and he is a populist too, getting huge cheers from the audience by proclaiming “down with austerity”. Swale’s writing is awash with topical references and theatrical in-jokes, but also she deluges us with bawdy humour and cringe-making double entendres. At times it feels as if she had intended this play to be the screenplay for “Carry On Nelly” and Christopher Luscombe’s rumbustious production has all the subtlety of a Christmas pantomime. The comedy is hit-and-miss, but, when it works, it works brilliantly, as in a hilarious scene when Nell’s dresser (Amanda Lawrence) is forced to step into a role and gives possibly the worst performance ever seen. Musical interludes (composer Nigel Hess) and dancing add to the merriment. The chief casualty of all the frivolity is sincerity and the longer the play goes on the more it suffers from its lack of substance. Scenes putting the action into its historical context come belatedly and seem as if added as an afterthought, while the sadness of the family that Nell has left behind does not come through as strongly as it needs to. Most tellingly, we are informed of the deep affection between the King and Nell, but we are not allowed to feel it. It has been said that history is bunk, in which case Swale’s play is full of history. However, if Nell Gwynn as an “actoress” had been able to feed off the laughter that this production generates, certainly she would never have starved.
Performance date: 24 September 2015