Nell Gwynn starring Laura Pitt-Pulford – review at the Lowry, Salford – ‘good-humoured’
Aphra Behn, one of the first professional female playwrights, once described Nell Gwynn as “made on purpose to put the whole world into good humour” – a sentiment that also neatly sums up Jessica Swale’s play. It turns the rise of one of Britain’s first professional actresses, from orange-seller to royal mistress, into a jokey romp set in the world of Restoration theatricalia.
Christopher Luscombe’s re-cast touring version of his original Shakespeare’s Globe and West End production initially strikes an uneven balance between the fun of watching Nell’s entanglement with star thespian Charles Hart and Drury Lane actors posturing in antique dramatic attitudes, and the play’s underlying serious thread about women challenging male-dominated cultural power by treading the boards.
The pace lifts once Laura Pitt-Pulford’s ambitious Nell dumps Hart and gets romantically hooked on Ben Righton’s velvet-voiced King Charles. The double-entendres and one-liners get more shameless. Nigel Hess’s bawdy songs add extra spice.
Initially, though, it’s hard to imagine that Pitt-Pulford’s slightly restrained Nell has emerged from the stink and slop of low-class Cheapside. But this soon turns into a rounded portrayal of a woman juggling popular success with genuine romance, and the dramatic side of the play is all the better for it.
Sam Marks is on equally strong form as the devoted Hart, as are Mossie Smith as Nell’s dresser, Nicholas Bishop as hapless playwright John Dryden and Esh Alladi as a scenery-chewing actor discovering that a man playing female roles on stage is as redundant as Nell flogging her oranges.
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