The emergence of the first English actress is a source of endless fascination for contemporary theatre- and film-makers. Stephen Jeffreys’ 1994 play about the Earl of Rochester and actress Elizabeth Barry, The Libertine, was turned into a film in 2004. The same year saw Stage Beauty, Richard Eyre’s film adaptation of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play, which focuses on the male Restoration actor Ned Kynaston, being ousted from the stage by his female dresser. Nell Gwynn had a cameo appearance in this film, although she is much more of a protagonist in April de Angelis’ Playhouse Creatures, a play from 1993 featuring women only.
Often the story is the one of a woman in a man’s world, her magnificent breakthrough eclipsed by the compromises having to be to made along the way. Jessica Swale’s new uproarious comedy is no exception in this regard, although the compromises depicted here are given a new take. Most of what we know of the historical person on which Swale’s character is based certainly points to a woman that did not suffer fools gladly, even if that might have included Charles Stuart II, himself.
In the space of about five years, street urchin Gwynn rose from an orange seller, to a cult actress, to the King’s favourite mistress, and eventually even mothered his two sons. Despite her unconcealed promiscuity, there is no indication in historical documentation or in Swale’s portrayal that Gwynn ever actually prostituted her personal interests in order to get to the top. If anything, it is the King that could be seen here as a weaker and emotionally more vulnerable party.
The focus of Swale’s take on the compromises made by a successful woman on her way is instead oriented towards Gwynn’s relationship to her own roots and her mother in particular. All of this is done with such charm and lightness of touch, however, that one can only really see it once the laughter has settled. Even the Old ma Gwynn, in Sarah Woodward’s inimitable portrayal, uses her few minutes on stage to thoroughly delight rather than in any way justify her daughter’s estrangement, making the poignancy of this entire theme emerge from what is not, rather than what is, said and done. In this way, Swale shows her consummate skill as a writer of comedy layered with deep and tastefully understated drama.
Director Christopher Luscombe and the entire brilliant ensemble of actors follow in the same vein. The ultimate aim, served also by the venue’s own unique potential, seems to be to keep rousing the crowd to continuous bursts of spontaneous applause. And it works. Whether by means of quips – such as ‘down with austerity’ coming from, no less than, the mouth of the King – by means of witty repartee, Amanda Lawrence’s perfect comic timing in the role of Gwynn’s dresser Nancy, or by means of satirizing Shakespeare, one key theme in this symphony for the senses, definitely comes courtesy of the audience approval.
One can imagine this play too making its transition to the screen although that is its weakness rather than a strength. With so much going for it theatrically, one only wishes its allegiance to its underlying satire was stronger and more lethally aimed at our own time, rather than staying on the level of an easily edited flourish.