Nell Gwynn (Guildburys Theatre Company)
Wednesday, July 12
Welcome to the witty, bawdy romp that is Nell Gwynn – Jessica Swale’s award-winning play set in 17th century theatre world. The playhouses have reopened after years of Puritan rule, and there’s a king back on the throne, making hay while the sun shines.
This is a lovely play; as open and warm yet as knowing about human frailty as Nell herself. There’s no sub-plot, no turgid passages pontificating about weighty issues; just rags to riches, real romance, a bit of earthy humour, some memorable songs, and a lot of laughs. Just the sort of play Nell would have liked. It’s a little bit Love Actually in fact.
Best known as the orange-seller who stole the heart of King Charles II, Nell Gwynn was also one of the first female actors on the stage. There is much discussion in the backstage scenes of the play about real women not being able to play women on stage, and about there not being good parts for women when they do get the chance to act.
Director Laura Sheppard must have thanked her lucky stars when Amy de Roche auditioned. She’s perfect as Nell; cheerful, expressive, cheeky – she seems great fun, the kind of person you’d want to hang out with. And she can sing and dance. (The ‘I can dance and I can sing’ ditty will not get out of my head!)
Playing her Charlie is Jason Orbaum, quietly regal and delivering the drily witty lines with elegance and warmth. Phill Griffith as Lord Darlington provides a nice bombastic contrast.
Ally Murphy as the Queen Catherine, her torrent of invective in Portuguese about the king shaming her by forcing her to meet his mistress, was very impressive; as was Tessa Duggleby as said mistress, the ambitious Barbara Castlemaine, looking upon Nell as a rather stupid lamb about to be eaten by a lion. Jemma Jessup as Louise de Keroualle, angling for the king’s affections in order to secure French interests, is also excellent.
In the theatre scene, Andrew Donovan plays the increasingly harassed-looking theatre owner Killigrew; Graham Russell-Price is Dryden the uninspired playwright, Tim Brown is the likeable Charles Hart who first trains Nell for the stage, Michael Thonger is Ned the unassuming young actor, and Eddie Woolwich plays the female impersonator Edward Kynaston – furious that an actual woman has stolen his roles. One of the funniest scenes is where he has created a ridiculous back story for his character, who has but one line to say.
We were also in tears – with hysterical laughter – when Nancy the dresser has a go at acting in the absence of Nell. Her obvious discomfort and desperation to get offstage, much to the exasperation of the other actors and the director, were hilarious. It would be so easy to overplay this, but the timing and expression were spot on and it was one of the highlights of the show. Well done to Pam Hemelryk.
Rose Hall as Nell’s sister Rose was suitably grimy and guttersnipy, while Old Ma Gwynn played by Gilly Fick, has her Doolittle moment to remind Nell where she came from.
The whole production, on a simple but effective set, with lovely costumes and the beautiful backdrop of Waverley Abbey, makes for a very entertaining and feelgood evening. Well done all.
Nell Gwynn is at Waverley Abbey until July 15, then at Haslemere Museum July 27-29.