I have to admit to a soft spot for both Nell Gwynn and Charles II. The former always stands out amid the court beauties of history – generally either bitchy or insipid – for her wit and warmth, while the latter seems to have been one of the few genuinely intelligent British monarchs – and one of even fewer with an identifiable sense of humour. So the real wonder is why it took me so long to manage to see Jessica Swale’s glorious play.
Although I’ve been missing out all this time (the play was first performed in 2015), I’m glad that I ended up catching it in its original home, the Globe. Although the original Globe was a hundred or so years earlier than the period the play covers, there’s something about the intimacy of the ‘wooden O’, and the closeness of the audience to the stage that feel right for the Restoration period. Christopher Luscombe’s production makes good use of the way that characters can walk right through the groundlings to reach the stage, right from the first scene, which features a confrontation between our heroine Nell and a heckler hidden among the real-life audience, with an unfortunate actor caught in the middle.
Laura Pitt-Pulford gives a winning performance as Nell, whose rise from orange-seller to King’s mistress, via a stint as an actress, is charted by the play. As well as having the necessary charm, she also sings beautifully. The catchy songs, particularly one about a giant hat, are one of the productions great strengths – you’ll have them stuck in your head for days afterwards. It’s nice to have a pay with a female lead, and there are some other good roles for women, with Mossie Smith very funny as Nell’s dresser Nancy, and Pandora Clifford giving not one but two beautifully bitchy performances as two rival royal mistresses.
It may be pleasingly female-dominated, but the men do pretty well out of it too. Ben Righton as Charles II strikes a nice balance between majesty and humour. He gets some of the best lines, including a perfectly-timed response to the exclamation of ‘Oh God!’: “Well, King. Next rung down.” Sam Marks gives a poignant performance as Charles Hart, the actor lover who Nell abandons for the king. Esh Alladi also puts in a funny turn as drama queen Edward Kynaston – an actor playing female roles, convinced that this fad for actresses won’t last long. There is even an appearance from a rea,l live – and very cute – King Charles spaniel (gender unknown), to the great delight of the audience.
The storyline is bit slight – girl becomes actress, girl meets king, they fall in love – and as a result, there’s perhaps not a huge amount of dramatic tension, but that doesn’t really matter. This play is one that can truly be described as a ‘romp’ and taken on that level it is utterly wonderful – warm, witty, fun and beautiful to look at. Not unlike Nell Gwyn herself, in fact.