Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn was one of the Globe Theatre’s notable recent hits.
The rags-to-riches story of an ‘umble orange seller who became the favourite of the king – seems custom-made to thrive in that kind of noisy, interactive, tourist-filled environment.
Much like Shakespeare in Love, Nell Gwynn is a love letter to the stage (post-interregnum in this instance), a story of transgression wrapped in romance, spiced with bawdy humour and feminist messages, and dressed in period duds.
Swale’s plot is drawn mostly from the historical record. Circa 1662, the Cheapside-born ex-prostitute Nell (Bishanyia Vincent) is working the theatre stalls selling fruit and dishing saucy comments.
Her lively tongue catches the ear of company leading man Charles Hart, who sees in the Nell the makings of an ‘actoress’.
After some gently comic missteps (Nell can’t read and Edward Kynaston, a ‘boy player’ renowned for female roles, hates her with a passion), Hart is proved right. Nell becomes the toast of Restoration London and soon catches the eye of the playboy King Charles II, who promptly makes her an offer she can’t refuse.
But here’s the rub: life in the gilded cage of Charles’ court is no fun compared to the rough-and-tumble of the theatre.
Blimey! Wot’s a gel ter do?
Swale’s play is generously proportioned (16 in the cast; almost three hours with interval) and replete with theatrical and social history, Restoration realpolitik, Carry On-style chuckles, sexual intrigue and a few song-and-dance numbers.
It’s a lot to keep moving but director Deborah Jones’ production has everything moving at a good clip, at least until interval, when the momentum falls away somewhat.
Designer John Cervanka’s set of revolving flats doesn’t offer much in the way of visual interest but does facilitate the necessary quick transitions between court and theatre. Deborah Mulhall has dressed everyone very effectively on what must be a very stretched costume budget.
Jones has cast the piece very solidly and she has a near-perfect Nell. Vincent is across everything: the brassy wit, the warmth, the hints of shrewdness.
Lloyd Allison-Young, who seems to be in semi-permanent residence at the New this year, lights up Swale’s sympathetic portrait of Charles, a philanderer haunted by the trauma of his father’s public beheading.
Rupert Reid is a suitably dashing Hart, Kate Bookalil is a canny and conniving Lady Castlemaine (the favourite Nell replaces), and Steve Corner is reliably funny as John Dryden, a playwright struggling to put crowd-pleasing jokes into his second-hand tragedies.
Steven Ljubovic (Kynaston), Debra Bryan (Nell’s dresser Nancy), Peter Mountford (court enforcer Lord Arlington) and Eleanor Ryan (Rose Gwynn, Nell’s sister) contribute strongly.
A big, rich, hearty night of theatre that just needs a few nights under lights to cook through.