Jessica Swale’s retelling of the true life story of Nell Gwynn is a remarkable feat of theatre. The first time we see Nell she is one of us an ordinary -if not a boisterous spectator; there was also the slight difference that Nell was an orange-seller. Nell’s mouthy persona soon sees her treading the boards of Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, and then into the heart of King Charles II himself. Nell was far from an ordinary girl; she was an extraordinary historical figure – after all she was the mistress of Charles. From her impoverished origins as an orange-seller, rising to become the mistress of Charles, and then becoming one of the most celebrated actresses to grace the stage – Nell Gwynn’s life really does trump the rags to riches story of Cinderella.
There’s one thing that is striking about Christopher Lucombe’s production and Swale’s script – although Nell Gwnn is about the life of Nell Gwynn more importantly this production is about theatre. The introduction of female actresses on the stage previously dominated by males (who often dressed as female characters on-stage). Nell Gwynn in this light could be seen as a feminist production with a modern twist. Swale intelligently integrated numerous modern angles to make the production relevant to a modern day audience. At one point Lord Arlington, Charles’ Advisor, shouts to the joys of the audience in the Globe ‘Down with austerity.’
The cast of Nell Gwynn are rightly overshadowed by our leading heroine Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Nell Gwynn. Mbatha-Raw is everything you would want; she’s both charming and sharp, sings and dances in a number of delightful numbers, and she epitomises the struggles of Nell from the streets of London all the way into the bed chamber of Charles. The men attempt to make there presence heard but never make the impact of the ladies. Amanda Lawrence was an absolute delight and a firm crowd favourite as Nancy, Nell’s confidante. Nancy’s utter ineptitude on-stage is by far one of the highlights of the production -something that may drag during rehearsals here results in constant joyous laughter.
The men could have taken a leaf out of Sarah Woodward’s book when it came to making your presence being felt on-stage. Woodward who plays Nell’s brothel ageing mother Old Ma Gwynn stole the second act in a single moment. Whilst raging at Nell about her new life of prosperity and riches she bursts out wanting a spirit or two to quench her thirst; at which moment she leans over into the spectators area, literally takes a half-pint from an unsuspecting spectator, and downs it in one -much to the delight of the audience around.
David Sturzaker as Charles may not have the on-stage dominance as our heroine but he nevertheless does achieve the ability to paint King Charles as a compassionate and humane monarch who cares deeply for his urchin princess. There are also noteworthy performances from Jay Taylor as Charles Hart, Graham Butler as the baffling playwright and some hysterical moments by Edward Kynaston who plays the female roles in the King’s Theatre Company.
The life of Nell Gwynn is inspiring. Her rag to riches story is one that is forgotten by history. Nell was the first on-stage personalities and actresses who cared deeply for the life of the theatre and the position of women in general. This production which brings an end to the summer programme at the Globe is not to be missed. Although its flow might ebb at parts; Nell Gwynn is a remarkable lady and this is a remarkable play.
Written by Sandip Kana | @sandipkana