Nell Gwynn is a madcap comedy full of restoration humour and theatrical bravado, but with a careful eye on the complexities of life as a Restoration woman.
It details the rise in station of the eponymous Nell (Anna Freeman) from orange seller, to actress and eventually the king’s mistress, tackling her treatment as a woman, her past as a prostitute and the politics of the day through plenty of camp humour and Restoration wit.
The production opens with a play, of course, then hecklers, shouting abuse, hurling oranges and throwing the audience very much into the throng of a Restoration theatre. The troupe of king’s actors bounce perfectly off each other, matching each character’s wit in constant quips and excessive bravado that provides the backbone of the play’s comedy. The audience was left in raptures at the chiding remarks, oddly familiar “original play-ideas”, and their bumbling disorganisation. Mr Hart’s (Will Leckie) lessons on acting are wonderfully excessive, replete with melodramatic sobbing and a voice booming ‘to the gods’, poking fun at theatrical conventions. A standout role was Jack Medlin’s Kynaston, the resident “boy player” who provided constant, well-timed witty retorts against Nell’s increasing success – ‘Tits! What’s it got to do with tits?’ Medlin’s fan-work was especially impressive, played with a humorous camp excess, yet with a subtlety through which you could interpret each different emotional gesture, even if he never went to ‘fan school’.
Freeman’s Nell had all the wit and bravado of the brash actors, encapsulating the surety, bold cockney retorts and dangerous humour of Gwynn’s famously uncompromising attitude.
She also conveyed the difficulties of living in a masculine world, where men pay to watch her change and forging her own way comes with difficult consequences. The complexity of such issues came into its own in the second half of the performance, comedy of the first half augmented by the dangers and intricacies of Nell’s unstable position. Freeman was well-matched by an irresistibly camp King Charles II (Charlie Pottle), who added another kind of comedy, full of bawdy innuendo, to the actors’ brash bravado.
There were some issues with lighting and cues, making the performance drag at times, with actors waiting in awkward silence for their cue to exit, while spotlights also proved a menace, many actors missing their spot, leaving their face half illuminated or their body in darkness. For scenes which relied on such techniques, specifically the play scenes, the impact was somewhat lost, however, this is symptomatic of a first night and especially excusable in a freshers’ play. When working, lighting was used cleverly, such as the use of rose-tinted lighting for discussions on love. The set design was impeccable, the attention to detail some of the best I have seen, with period-accurate portraits on the walls, piles of contemporary literature and a gaudily painted theatre that perfectly evoked the camp comedy of restoration theatre. The costumes too were carefully judged, the period-specific style (something of a rarity now) cultivating an immersive image of Restoration England.
Nell Gwynn is a wonderful piece of comedy, undercut by an attention to the serious difficulties of forging a path as a woman in a masculine world. It is full of suitably camp restoration humour, flowing costumes and witty exchanges sure to entertain.