Odsbodkins, what a pretty, witty riot.
The London premiere of Steve Trafford’s play triumphs in bringing Restoration-style dramatic comedy into a modern day perspective, inviting its audience to consider life and death, love, loss and ultimately survival. It is an accomplished two-hander filled with wry humour and a feeling of determination to thrive in the face of adversity. Alongside York Theatre Royal, production company Ensemble ensured that the Finsbury Park audience experienced a play that draws together the personal and political. The story of Nell Gwyn, that enduring folk heroine, is given a pithy makeover to remove from our minds the image of an orange-seller who romped with the king and replace it with a figure of great charm, intelligence and pragmatism. In this vein, Elizabeth Mansfield (whose performance in Marie – the Story of Marie Lloyd earned her an Olivier nomination) is a fine Nell, sharp as a tack with the trappings of a countess and the wisdom of the streets. Her companion is the fictional Margery, played by Angela Curran (of recent The Job Lot note). Margery enjoys the privilege of addressing the audience directly, and her knowingly sardonic asides are wonderfully funny as well as occasionally sobering.
Park Theatre has quite the growing reputation; having only opened its doors in 2013, their latest offering is another success story. The intimate performance space chosen is well-suited to the nature of confessions, secrets and panic that permeate the play. A sparse stage is enlivened not only by Nell’s Baroque guitar, but also the introduction of various props. This is Restoration proper. Nell’s business with her fan drew some of the biggest laughs of the evening. Similarly impressive was the 17th-century condom, or as it is appetisingly marketed by a sceptical Nell, a ‘sheep’s gut cock sock’. And when Nell is banned from the king’s bedside due to the superstitions of his doctors, she dons the disguise of fantastical Frenchman ‘Monsieur le Cont Pierre de Pettiwinkle’, complete with periwig, breeches and court shoes. An arresting sight.
But this cross dressing/gender swapping has more weight than a simple laugh line or visual gag. The role of the sexes is at the heart of this play. Nell’s reputation as the greatest male impersonator of her age has significance beyond that of her acting abilities – the audience is shown a woman who has almost chameleonic properties, able to adapt to the needs of any and all situations, dismissing setbacks and crying “bear all and grin” (pun intended). Held back by men, she becomes one. Nell and Margery are of course smarter than the lot of these ‘children but in larger size’. Their cynical wonderment at the religious fanaticism, sexual depravity and social behaviours of men still rings depressingly true today, although the point is a little forced with the play’s prologue (still a load of bastards in the House of Lords etc.)
Damien Cruden and the rest of his creative team have clearly established a healthy environment in which to interpret the script. Of course, this is helped by the fact that Ensemble was founded by Mansfield and Trafford, yet nonetheless the performance felt finely tuned – there were perhaps only two stumbles in over ninety minutes. Ensemble also have a self-confessed interest in the interplay between music, song and text. Thus Henry Purcell’s music is interspersed throughout the play, and Mansfield puts her operatic training to good use in lending a beautiful voice to the lyrics.
There’s a checklist reference to contemporaries of Nell (Aphra Benn, Dryden, Newton), and the recently historical (Shakespearean phrases rear their heads every now and again), but Trafford’s work would have fared just as well without. The true intrigue is in the mentality of Nell, her relationship with Margery, and her tenuous role in a man’s world. Both characters have their secret worries, hidden behind a faÃ§ade of scorn, bravura or acceptance. That politics drives a wedge between them at the conclusion of the play is almost maddening, for Nell and Margery’s quest for survival is one that depends on their companionship. Things turn out alright for Nell in the end, although she didn’t long outlive Charles, and the performances of Mansfield and Curran ensure that the stories of ‘the Protestant whore’ have much life yet.
The Restoration of Nell Gwyn plays at Park Theatre until 20th February 2016. Click here for tickets.