Frothy and funny, but not without bite, it’s no wonder Nell Gwynn has managed a stint at the Globe, the West End and is now touring with the English Touring Theatre. Jessica Swale has created a heroine so captivating it’s easy to see how she charmed a king, and built around her a delightful confection of comedy, chaos and even catchy songs – the result is a joy to watch.
As the beating heart of the production, Laura Pitt-Pulford shines as Nell. Plucky, spirited and outspoken, she’s a working class girl who refuses to be shamed for her humble roots or her past as a prostitute, and who captures first the eye of the actor who puts her on stage as one of the first female ‘actoresses’, and, from there, the playboy monarch who would make her a royal mistress.
The rest of the cast are equally strong. The actors’ company makes for plenty of digs at the drama behind the scenes and the egos of actors and writers, and provides most of the real comedy. Nicholas Bishop’s John Dryden is continually a page behind what he promised, cribbing off Shakespeare and always open to an ego stroke; Sam Marks’ Charles Hart struts about like a thespian Lord Flashheart – all hair, crotch and ego – but has a nice streak of vulnerability when he knows he’s losing Nell to a rival who can’t be challenged. As the mouthy dresser turned extremely reluctant actress, Mossie Smith gets a lot of laughs.
The life of the court is naturally more staid, the humour a little more sly. Michael Cochrane is the king’s ambitious advisor, frustrated by his sovereign’s irresponsibility but not without schemes of his own, and Pandora Clifford ably does double duty: impervious and glacially seductive as the mistress who is displaced by Nell, then supercilious as the Frenchwoman who in turn is Nell’s competition. Her casting, while economic, also feels like pert commentary on the life of a royal favourite: there’s always another one along in a minute, and they’re too often seen as interchangeable.
The play is pretty kind to Charles II (a smoothly charismatic Ben Righton). There are hints of his thoughtless cruelty (a scene about his wife being humiliated when he appoints his mistress to her chambers starts a bit ‘comedy foreigner’ for my tastes but turns into something quite poignant) but mostly he’s an amiable – if feckless – toff. His romance with Nell sometimes feels like a storyline lifted from Love Actually, where the posh leader just needs the love of a no-nonsense commoner to give him some backbone.
Swale as a director always had a pleasing lightness of touch, and Christopher Luscombe brings that to her writing, keeping the piece nimble and (for the most) fast moving, and Hugh Durrant’s sumptuous set is well used. It’s not without flaws – the first half could be tighter and shorter, and it doesn’t always marry the comedy with the moments of genuine darkness as well as it might. While Esh Alladi steals every scene he is in as Ned Kynaston, the actor who protests at the idea of women on stage for the sake of artistic integrity but is really just worried about his own career as a player of female parts, his turn – hilarious (and without malice) as it is – veers dangerously close to the dated stereotype of campy, bitchy queen. And in a rare bit of under-writing, Pepter Lunkuse does her best to bring real heart to Nell’s sister Rose, but it’s a one-note role that too often falls flat.
These caveats aside, the writing overall is pleasingly sharp, and makes some pertinent points about progress, class and gender without being heavy handed (there’s even a perfectly timed Brexit joke, which got a roar of approval from the ‘Vote Remain’ Brighton audience). It’s a play as winning as its heroine, and it’s impossible not to be charmed.
Nell Gwynn is on in Brighton until 11th March 2017, and then continuing to tour. Click here for more details.