We’re in London in the 1660s, and royalty (in this case Charles II – the one who hid in the oak tree) is once more on the throne of England, after 4 years of Oliver Cromwell’s austere Commonwealth. Small wonder that the country looks to the theatre for entertainment and enjoyment, and it is in one of these theatres that His Majesty sets eyes for the first time on a certain Nell Gwynn. The rest, as they say, is history.
But in Jessica Swayle’s delightful and perceptive play, we’re taken on quite a ride, from when Nell is first ‘discovered’ by Charles Hart, the leading actor in the King’s Company, to the King’s death and Nell’s abandonment. This is a play about plays and players and much of it is set on-and back-stage at the theatre, though politics and personalities both have their part to play too.
As Nell, who has “swapped selling her oyster for selling oranges”, Heather Phelps was excellent, her husky delivery (sometimes more Corrie than Cheapside) making the most of the language while running the gamut of emotions. She brought home the depth of her love for, and devotion to the king, while first learning to act and then fighting off the King’s favourites to maintain her place at court. Harry Seager’s King Charles at first came across as a bit of a lightweight and his body-language could have been more regal, but he grew into the part and his relationship with Nell evolved into something very poignant.
In the acting company, Fred Thornton, as leading man Charles Hart, was typically ‘actor-ish’ living with the day-to-day challenge of having to find new plays to entertain the masses, most of them being written (or, as the case here, NOT written) by playwright John Dryden (a nicely frustrated Rory Dick). Jake Collyer’s larger-than-life Edward Kynaston (who up ‘til now played the leading lady until Nell came along) was a joy to watch, and Tom Usher’s gangling trainee actor Ned Spigget was quietly comic in the background.
The other ladies had mixed fortunes; Barbara Castlemain, The King’s ambitious mistress (Millie Pike), was far too quiet to begin with, but touching in her final scene with Nell, and it was a shame that Queen Catherine (Eleanor Bogle) didn’t speak Portugese, as in the script, and neither did Claudia Shaw’s Louise De Keroualle (his French mistress) speak French. And then there was Nancy! Sarah Le Besque, as Nell’s dresser and confidante, almost stole every scene she appeared in with her outrageous antics and near-the-mark ad-libs. But this is a seriously funny comic actress at work, though those working with her run the risk of being upstaged a bit too frequently!
Director Emma Frazzitta’s simply staged production was thoroughly enjoyable to watch and her producing and technical team should be very satisfied with this entertaining and historically instructive evening.