REVIEW: Nell Gwyn: Theatre Royal

Nell Gwyn

Jessica Swale

Theatre Royal

It is 1660. The Puritans revolution has ended. Charles II has exploded onto the scene with a love of all things loud, French and sexy. And at Drury Lane, a young Nell Gwynn is selling oranges for sixpence.  Her wit catches the attention of the theatre director who teaches her acting, a brand new thing for a woman on the stage.  Nell then catches the attention of the theatre’s patron, Charles II and become his mistress.

Nell Gwynn charts the rise of an unlikely heroine, from her roots in working class London to her success as Britain’s most celebrated actress, and her hard-won place in the heart of the king. But at a time when women are second-class citizens,  and status is all,  she has to use her charm and spirit to protect her from the dangers of the court, settling herself into a comfortable place and never stopping being frank and fighting for herself and her dignity.  Writer Jessica Swale wrote this for the Globe and her vibrant take on life in the theatre in the 17th century is superb. Warm, funny, honest and with a lot of celebration of the theatre itself.  It worked well in the confines of the Theatre Royal, the rococo accoutrements adding a touch of ancient theatrical atmosphere to this play.

The cast are superb, with not a bum note from them, their comic timing works well, there’s some delicious flights of crazy fantasy, the interactions between theatre and court, king and court and man and his women are handled with a subtle grace. There are some wonderful contemporary jokes which brought applause from the audience and plenty of laughter abounded.  Swale has stuck firmly to the accepted history of Gwyn but added in a modern honest female perspective to allow us to see Gwyn as a real woman, in context of her restoration times, without any shame for her experiences and lead by her wit and charm.

Laura Pitt Pulford as Nell brings us a tender feisty women, knowing her value, resistant of societies mores and exploring the new opportunities given to women following the Puritan revolution. The relationship between Nell and King is believable and engages us from the start, there’s some superb cameo parts done with historical gusto, the indignant Queen; Catherine of Braganza was wonderful and the whole is a much bigger piece of theatre than its parts.

Its complex, multi layered but honest and my companion and I enjoyed the play immensely, it seemed longer than it was, in a good way holding our attention to the end,   and the honest working lives of the actors on stage were as interesting as the machinations of the Stuart Court. Stuffed full of innuendo and political observations as accurate as they are funny it’s a lovely combination of the vulgar and the charming, a reflection of Gwyn’s character and the bawdy times she lived in.  There’s no great exploration of Charles failings as a king, this is all about the lives of Women and it’s refreshing to see such a slew of well written female characters filled with life on stage.

The costumes and design from  Hugh Durrant are sumptuous and give the right amount of royal swish to the evening and the music from Nigel Hess and the on stage musicians frames the action and changes of pace well, highlighting more emotional moments and giving a feeling of an earlier age at the Theatre.  The English Touring Theatre who are producing this have done a great job in bringing this down to the Theatre Royal stage.

This was a warm and funny evening’s entertainment and a superb production of this delightful play by this talented crew.  Certainty worth getting out and watching and being inspired and charmed by this reconstruction of restoration theatre and the ground breaking changes wrought by Nell Gwynn and her fellow players. The full house gave a huge roar of approval at the end and wandered out into the night humming Nell’s songs.

Theatre Royal


Until Sat 11th March

For more info or to buy tickets see the Theatre Royal Website here



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