Muddy reviews: sexy Cinderella story – Nell Gwynn
It’s International Women’s Day this Wednesday, so a fitting week to see a play about Nell Gwynn, which is on at Brighton’s Theatre Royal till Saturday. You may know her as the orange seller-turned actress who became Charles II’s favourite mistress. What’s also notable is that Nell was one of the first women to appear on stage at a time when female parts were traditionally played by men. She and her fellow pioneers helped inspire stronger roles and a following generation of women playwrights.
The ever-reliable English Touring Theatre is the company behind the production, which has already won an Olivier Award for best new comedy and will be having a run at the Globe later in the year.
It’s a bawdy romp full of cheek – much like Nell herself. Hers was a kind of sexy Cinderella story. Though noone’s sure how the transition took place (this production has a fun idea involving her banter with a heckler), pretty, quick-witted Nell was one day encouraged up from selling oranges in a Drury Lane theatre pit and onto the stage itself. She became a very popular actress, known particularly for romantic comedies playing opposite actor Charles Hart, with whom she also had an affair.
Her mother is believed to have run a brothel and Nell may have at one time been a prostitute herself – in the play it’s a fact she doesn’t deny. It’s certainly a matter of record that punters often paid extra to watch actresses change. Nell’s relationship with the king however was enduring and based, ultimately, it appears, on love. Their story is all the more notable as Charles’s reign followed the austere times of Oliver Cromwell when theatre and all forms of frivolity were banned.
Laura Pitt plays a sparkly, loveable Nell and has a great singing voice (though it’s most often used for bawdy ditties!) Other notable turns include her dresser Nancy – played by Mossie Smith and Nell’s mum, who makes a brief, hilarious appearance at the palace, played by Joanne Howarth. Esh Alladi strutting around in linen boobs, is also great fun as an aggrieved actor who is no longer required to play female leads.
I somewhow couldn’t shake the feeling that Ben Righton as Charles II kind of reminded me in looks and voice of David Walliams. The fun-loving king is keen to keep his head – literally – by keeping everyone happy. There are several jokes about his spaniels (now the famous Kings Charles Spaniels, of course) that he’s constantly out walking when he’s not bedding Nell.
There are laughs too at playwright Dryden, better known for his poetry, who, under pressure from the king himself to churn out a play a week at some points, heavily borrowed from Shakespeare and others. His Enchanted Isle, for instance, featured a familiar Prospero and his daughter Miranda with an extra sister thrown in. There’s even an amusing moment in the play where, in an effort to produce new material with a strong female lead, he outlines the plot of Titanic but has it poo-pooed.
Modern language is used for Nell Gwynn but there are plentiful references to the turbulent era depicted. When someone make a quip about the plague and his colleagues wince he asks “too soon?” Bang up to date, there’s also a Brexit joke.
Some of the costumes, involving metres of silk, are gorgeous. Musicians in a gallery above the stage really lift the performance by providing live accompaniment on traditional instruments. All in all it’s a fun, feel-good play, with solid acting and an interesting true life story at its heart. Check out the programme to see just how much is based on fact – you’ll be surprised.
Nell Gwynn is at The Theatre Royal, Brighton, Tues 7 – Sat 11 March, Tickets cost from £18.90. Theatre Royal, New Road, Brighton, 0844 871 7650 atgtickets.com