United Players
Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale

Dates and Venue June 1 - 24, 2018, 8pm; 2pm matinees on Sundays | Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery

Director Adam Henderson Production Manager Fran Burnside Set Design Chris Bayne Costume Design CS Ferguson-Vaux Lighting Design Michael Methot Sound Design Zakk Harris Stage Manager Andy Sandberg

Reviewer John Jane

Written by Jessica Swale and directed by Adam Henderson, Nell Gwynn, titled after English monarch Charles II’s most notorious courtesan, is a lively romp essentially about theatre in 17th century London.

The Restoration of the monarchy is not a chapter of history that many outside Britain may have an extensive knowledge of. Documents may indicate that Charles II’s reign directly followed that of his father Charles I. In fact, the there was a period between when England was governed by the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell.

Regarded as something akin to a folk heroine, Nell Gwynn was born around 1650 in a part of London that would become the theatre district. Charles II was very supportive of English theatre where he was known to find many a willing mistress. So when popular actor Charles Hart (Emmett Lee Stang) took our heroine under his wing, there was an immediate acceptance by the public and the industry itself to include women on the stage for the first time. Thomas Killigrew (David C. Jones) the theatre company director realised the financial benefit of having Nell perform on his stage.

Swale’s work steps gingerly over political and religious conflicts of the time and even plays fast and loose with the historic facts of aspects it does constitute. However, it does illustrate in an engaging way how the eponymous street vendor turned actor rose from humble beginnings to the king’s expensive strumpet.

Nell instinctively took to the stage and despite unable to read managed to learn her lines. Charlotte Wright is appropriately coquettish and defiantly feminist as Nell. She is preposterously resistant to the king’s ‘indecent’ proposal, while brazenly seduces her mentor – doubtfully historically accurate.

Among the large exuberant cast, David C. Jones as the opportunistic Killigrew stands out with a fine tongue-in-cheek performance that includes a ludicrously funny prologue. Leeza Udovenko certainly looked the part of a strikingly well-bred Lady Castlemaine.
Chris Bayne’s elevated set, a precarious metre above the floor makes for easy viewing and CS Ferguson-Vaux’s costumes give an accurate reference to time and place.

The rivalry between Nell and Moll Davis, another of the King’s mistresses procured from the stage is obliquely touched upon but it might have added an interesting narrative dimension to include her character in the cast. Jessica Swale’s play is loads of fun and delightful camp – but don’t expect a history lesson.

© 2018 John Jane