In a world in which the dividing line between fame and infamy is becoming increasingly thin, and where private lives are rendered public, a play that depicts one of the first female actors’ rise on the Restoration stage seems all the more pertinent and interesting. How did Nell Gwynn, orange-girl and prostitute, become the mistress of King Charles II within a culture where women on the stage were an emerging phenomenon? Jessica Swale’s book actively provides a heroine strong and fierce against her seventeenth-century context, and Roger Beaumont’s production of the play with the Tower Theatre Company offers a lively interpretation of the material.
Swale’s Nell Gwynn was first produced in 2015, premiering at Shakespeare’s Globe in October before moving to the Apollo Theatre in 2016, with Gemma Arterton in the lead role. I never saw either production, but the grandeur of both theatrical spaces can still be seen in photos, which capture the more lavish sets of the production (including the King’s apartment and playhouse). The Bridewell Theatre is a small, homely space, and Beaumont’s set, though simple, is rather charming. Attractive costumes make up for an otherwise bare stage. The theatre lies next to the Humble Grape bar and through the thin walls the noise of this establishment’s raucous patrons can be heard through the theatre on a Friday night. At some points this was distracting, however in other moments it quaintly captured the bustle and buzz of Restoration London. Added to this is the large ensemble cast in Beaumont’s production that barely fits in such a small space; with people often crossing over, entering and exiting or bringing on props, the overall effect is a packed, kinetic and (often) chaotic environment that again captures the lively theatrical scene of the Restoration stage. A five-piece band accompanied the actors, and though at times the music was slightly off key, it provided a pleasant accompaniment throughout the evening.
A brief skim through the programme reveals that for many of the actors this is either their first production entirely or at least a maiden voyage with the Tower Theatre Company. For the most part, this inexperience was masked. Beaumont’s production is wonderfully led by Grace Wardlaw. She energetically demonstrates that she, like Gwynn, can be happy, sad, anxious and scared, as Mike Hadjipateras’ Charles Hart advises her during their first ‘drama lesson’. On the evening I saw the show, Wardlaw had a rather unfortunate wardrobe malfunction where her dress almost fell down, but she handled this rather wonderfully and, if anything, it added to her protestations of love for Charles. The production saw many other strong performances. Julia Flatley and Jeanette Clarke, opening the second half of the show, were equally captivating in their respectively sincere and comic presentations as Gwynn’s sister and mother. In telling Gwynn their mother had died, Flatley again powerfully dominated the scene. In her cynicism and ham-acting, Valerie Antwi was wry, sardonic and, ultimately, very amusing as Nancy. Felix Grainger’s John Dryden was earnest and Hadjipateras and Simon Vaughan both provided strong presences on stage. Adam Hampton-Matthews’ scene changes were amusing, though at times repetitive and unnecessary, especially when the upcoming scene only depicted a few moments later. I have never seen paper thrown with such nonchalance as done by the ensemble’s Alice Boorman, and though only in one scene, Rosalind Reeder made a particular impression in her depiction of the abandoned Queen Catherine. Finally, and by no means least, Simon Brooke’s Edward Kynaston, with his linen ‘tits’, was camp, fun and darkly sardonic.
Given the small size of the theatre, none of the actors use microphones. A slight complaint, therefore, is that some actors would begin speaking before the music had finished, and so were inaudible. Occasionally, actors’ exits from scenes did not match the tone of what had just been performed and there was a slight sense that jokes could be delivered better, especially in the first half, since few members of the audience actually laughed. However, as the production continued and the actors warmed to the roles, the comedy (and more generally the acting) became more natural. Ultimately, these are but quibbling complaints for an otherwise competent production.
Overall, the Tower Theatre Company’s performance of Nell Gwynn is comic, bawdy and heartfelt, led by an energetic and vigorous cast. Running only until the 16th December 2017, I’d implore any fan of the Restoration to attend this production to support both the theatre and this group of encouraging actors. In its capturing of seventeenth-century London, the evening promises to delight. At the end of the production they all sing the song Nell Gwynn first performed at her first production, charged with the fun refrain ‘I can dance and I can sing and I am good at either, and I can do the other things when we get together’. Truly, this cast is as versatile as Gwynn herself.
Nell Gwynn, written by Jessica Swale and directed by Roger Beaumont, is at the Bridewell Theatre, London, until December 16th 2017.