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The Restoration of Nell Gwyn review at Park Theatre, London – ‘lively if didactic’

Elizabeth Mansfield as Nell Gwyn at the Park Theatre, London Photo: Anthony Robling Elizabeth Mansfield as Nell Gwyn at the Park Theatre, London Photo: Anthony Robling
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Who’d have thought that the bawdy darling of the Restoration stage would be gracing two London theatres simultaneously in 2016? As the Globe’s production of Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn moves into the Apollo, The Restoration of Nell Gwyn arrives at the Park Theatre from York, following a tour.

While the first is a rip-roaring, theatre-set comedy with a numerous cast led by a flirtatious Nell relishing interaction with her large audience, the second is an intimate two-hander, with Nell, raddled and anxious, awaiting news of the dying king.

Steve Trafford and the Ensemble company face particular challenges. Not only has Nell’s entire career to be presented in retrospect, but necessary historical facts must be provided in conversation between Nell, played by Elizabeth Mansfield, and her (fictional) long-suffering maid, Margery, played by Angela Curran. Trafford’s writing is full of lively similes and metaphors, although some of the contemporary detail – the effects of plague, sixteenth century cures, public execution, the politics of the succession, the power of other mistresses, fashionable theatre of the time – can seem didactic. Demonstration, however – when Nell dances in court style and Margery in clogs or Nell dons breeches – works a treat. Mansfield sings songs by Purcell, with great sweetness, to a baroque guitar, although these moments seem to sit outside the play.

Mansfield and Curran have developed an earthy, humorous, interdependent relationship under Damian Cruden’s pacy direction, with Margery sometimes addressing the audience directly and finally shocking Nell with a secret about her past. Trafford seeks to suggest contemporary parallels through his two resourceful female survivors. Nell’s ribald wit shone mainly in the presence of men, however, and that dimension we must do without.

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Lively, if sometimes didactic, two-hander featuring colourful dialogue and beautifully sung Purcell