Review: Nell Gwynn. The Lace Market Theatre. Nottingham

Originally written for Nottingham Post.

Because of the civil war between the Royalists and the Puritans, life in England was very unsettled during the 1640s. Oliver Cromwell was a virtual dictator and Charles the First had been captured and beheaded by the Puritans. In 1658 Cromwell’s son was chosen as his successor but could not maintain control. In 1660 the Stuarts were restored to the throne. Between 1642 and 1660 the Puritans had sought to stamp out theatrical activity although prohibited theatre playing continued intermittently.

Actors could be apprehended and punished as rogues but some short plays still continued in private houses, inns or even indoor tennis courts. The actors themselves believed that theatre would once again be legalised and rebelled against the Puritan suppression. In this period of history male actors still played the female roles on stage but all that was about to change. Enter Nell Gwynn, briefly a prostitute, clever wit, player and lover to King Charles II.

The King had many other affairs alongside that of his favourite, Nell Gwynn, but ‘The Merry Monarch’ wasn’t just a womaniser and he is said to have had great respect for women. On being restored to the throne one of his early acts was to licence the formation of two acting companies and legalise acting as a profession for women. Over time there have been many books, plays and films about Nell Gwynn and in recent times she was a prominent character in April de Angelis’ play Playhouse Creatures and Bella Merlin constructed another play under the long winded title: Nell Gwynne: A Dramatik Essaye on Acting and Prostitution.

At The Lace Market Theatre in Jessica Swale’s comical drama, simply called Nell Gwynn, the action concentrates on the affairs of the heart between commoner and royalty, the attitudinal Restoration theatre world, jealous rivalries and pressures of life in the public gaze. It is very funny, almost Carry On Nell Gwynn in parts, and it is played with tongue-in-cheek gusto by the entire ensemble, all fluent and majestically assured in their text. The piece is tightly directed by Dave Partridge. The Lace Market Theatre historical costumes are uniformly excellent as are the settings by Dave Partridge and Mark James which use simple visuals to convey the scenes. It’s all very meta-theatre 1600s style.

Georgia Wray gives us a very joyous, vital, sexually knowing and intelligent Nell Gwynn and is well matched by a posturing Jamie Goodliffe as the larkish King Charles II. Other performance notables are Matthew Thomason as romantic lead actor Charles Hart and Richard Fife as a critically maligned playwright, John Dryden. Linda Croston shows her versatility as Ma Gwynn and Portuguese Queen Catherine. Clare Moss is imposing as Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Keroualle.

The whole cast is as enticingly juicy as a basket of ‘china’ oranges. Sometimes the action on stage is as fruity as hell, sometimes emotionally bitter-sweet but always with great appeal. Amongst the comical goings on and double entendres there is an explicitly feminist message celebrating Nell Gwynn as an icon of female progress; a young woman with a shrewd eye for female advancement. As the first main stage play in 2020 Nell Gywnn sets the bar high.

Nell Gwynn runs at The Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 1st February

Photo credit Mark James.

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