Saturday 12 July 2014

Theatre review: Nell Gwynn

This was a drama school production so technically an amateur performance; as usual I'll try to treat it the same as a professional show, since that's what the cast will be hoping to be in next.

Already one of my favourite directors, Jessica Swale made for a promising playwright as well with Blue Stockings, so her latest look at a trailblazing woman from history had to be worth checking out. Swale has been working with some of the LAMDA students around whom she's written Nell Gwynn, about the woman best remembered as Charles II's (in)famous mistress. This does, of course, feature in the play, but its larger concern is with the high profile that got the King's attention in the first place, and Gwynn's place in theatre history as the first woman to act on the Drury Lane stage. A former prostitute who moved on to the barely-more-respectable profession of orange-seller, Nell's (Bathsheba Piepe) confident sales pitch catches the eye of actor Charles Hart (Donal Gallery.) When a rival theatre company makes headlines with an actual female Desdemona (whose topless death scene is completely integral to the plot) Hart convinces impresario Killigrew (Adam Scott-Rowley) that Nell should be their own first "actoress."

Raz Shaw's production acknowledges the play's overt theatricality from the start, with the audience walking in to find the actors still changing out of their modern clothes into Restoration dress and wigs. Swale's play is huge amounts of fun, the deliberately anachronistic dialogue and gags (Nell and the King go off for some "sexytalk," and Raphael Acloque's Dryden proposes to write a play that sounds suspiciously like Titanic) giving it a bit of a Blackadder feel. Although I could have done without quite so many puns in the second act - by the time we got to "She's got a delicate constitution!" "So does the country," I felt like I was being steamrollered by them. Piepe is a very charismatic and promising lead, locking horns with the company's previous leading "lady" (Ollo Clark,) who doesn't appreciate being shunted to the side in favour of an actual woman; and taking pretty imaginative measures to get rid of a rival (Sally O'Leary) for the King's affections.

Of course Charles II (Toby Gordon) does arrive to take Nell's life in a drastically new direction, but while this surprisingly equal relationship is presented well, the real drama remains in how it affects her relationship with the company and her sister (Daisy Badger.) Nell Gwynn is a little bit too long in the second act but there's no denying how entertaining it is, and the cast make good use of the roles that have been written for them. But although the play was primarily written to showcase them, it would be a shame for it to have no life beyond five public performances, and if any canny artistic directors are in the audience they might spot more that just acting talent. With a bit of tightening up a full production of this could be a hit.

Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale is booking in repertory until the 16th of July at the LAMDA Linbury Studio.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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