A JOYOUS TRIBUTE TO THE MAGIC OF THEATRE &
THE ACHIEVEMENTS OF ONE OF THE FIRST FEMALE PERFORMERS ON THE LONDON STAGE
In 2016 Jessica Swale’s play Nell Gwynn won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, after it transferred from the Globe to the West End.
It is story of the rise to fame of the actress who captivated London audiences and won the heart of the ‘Merry Monarch’ told with wit and charm and some cracking songs !
It is occasionally bawdy and includes incidents which, while highly amusing, are not necessarily historically accurate, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be won over by Jessica Swale’s portrayal of a strong female survivor.
And there is plenty to delight audiences: if you prefer history lessons that are enlivened by the catchy tunes of Nigel Hess, some delightful incidental music played by local musicians, jolly dance numbers and a fantastic collection of colourful Restoration costumes, then this is the show for you !
This ambitious production at the Criterion Theatre in Earlsdon is directed by Keith Railton and the musical director is Bill Bosworth, supported by the talented instrumentalist Mary Mohan. There are 17th century dances choreographed by Robin Stokoe; wonderful costumes (and, of course, wigs) assembled and created by the Wardrobe Team under the expert guidance of Pam Coleman and Maureen Liggins; not forgetting a spectacular set designed by Bob Morley and brought into being by Simon Sharpe’s team of set builders and painters to create the atmosphere of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane under the patronage of King Charles II.
The lead part of Nell is played by Nicol Cortese (who will be remembered by Criterion audiences in her role as the mistress of another monarch in Howard Brenton’s ‘Anne Boleyn’). Pete Gillam takes on the challenge of portraying Charles II, and Gareth Withers plays Charles Hart, the leading actor in the King’s Company, another significant figure in Nell’s life, and the one who helped her to achieve the status of theatrical superstar. Adding to the musical talents of the lead players are well-known actor/singers Helen McGowan as Nancy; Hugh Sorrill as the Theatre Manager Thomas Killigrew , and David Butler as Edward Kynaston, one of the last ‘boy players’ who played the female roles in the days before women were allowed on the stage.
The story starts with the re-opening of the playhouses after the return to power of the Stuart Dynasty in the figure of Charles II, often dubbed ‘the Merry Monarch’ for his love of entertainment of all kinds. He was a notorious womaniser and fathered at least twelve illegitimate children, including two by Nell.
Called "pretty, witty Nell" by Samuel Pepys, she has been regarded as a living embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England and has come to be considered a folk heroine, with a story echoing the rags-to-royalty tale of Cinderella. She had a prodigious comic talent and became the most famous actor of her day.
The people loved her because she was one of them, but she was also a great entertainer with a ready wit. Clearly, she had also had a loving relationship with the King and when Charles lay dying in 1685, his deathbed wish was reportedly, ‘Let not poor Nelly starve’.
1. Review of 'Nell Gwynn' by Nick le Mesurier
'Nell Gwynn', by Jessica Swale, is a big, bawdy, rumbustious comedy that is destined to go down as one of The Criterion’s brightest, boldest productions. It’s full of fun, with a great story, great singing and dancing, gorgeous costumes, and above all a superb star in Nicol Cortese as Nell Gwynn. The whole cast is outstanding, but Nicol gives us a Nell to fall in love with.
Nell is a woman for our times. Born in poverty, she makes no apology for her rough upbringing, nor the fact that she has been a whore and has only taken up the soft fruit trade because it’s more profitable. Moreover, luck is on her side. Her brassy character and fine pair of lungs catches the attention of Charles Hart (Gareth Withers), leading actor in the King’s Company, just at a time when women are being allowed to perform on stage. She’s taken on, upsetting some of the company, not least Edward Kynaston (David Butler) who till then had played all the female parts. He is a fine pantomime dame, waspish, tragic, flamboyant, but upstaged and out-acted by Nell. Soon she is drawing in the crowds.
Among them, of course, is King Charles II (Peter Gilliam), a lover of the theatre and above all a lover. It doesn’t take long for him and Nell to be getting it on, much to the annoyance of the Royal Court, not least Charles’s wife, the glorious Queen Catherine (Christine Evans), resplendent in full Portuguese dress, and his then chief mistress Lady Castlemaine (Cathryn Bowler), and Lord Arlington (Brian Emeney), Charles’s stony faced political advisor. Still, Nell’s rise to fame seems unstoppable. She outwits, out-charms and outclasses them all.
In spite of all the glamour and the fun, realpolitik rears its ugly head. There’s the perennially awkward matter of how to deal with the French, who are supporters of Charles’s rival brother James II, who poses a Catholic threat. Thus, Charles’s shenanigans with women have a political edge, and an affair with Louise de Keroualle (Leonie Slater), a French noblewoman and nubile beauty, might be just what the country needs during these delicate negotiations. In this, even Charles is a pawn in a much bigger game.
Nell, of course, has other ideas. She sees off her rival in one of the most spectacular song and dance numbers in the play, featuring the whole cast and a giant hat! It’s funny, touching, and brilliantly executed.
But Nell’s fortunes cannot rise forever. When the king suddenly dies she is quickly shunned, though she survives and returns to the stage, where she both writes and performs a magnificent epilogue that celebrates the power of women to make their own way in the world.
I saw this on a cold, snowy opening night, and I almost missed it. I’m so glad I didn’t, because I saw a play to remember, put on by a great crew, and with a star who is truly worthy of her role.
2. Review of 'Nell Gwynn' for Elementarywhatson by Chris Arnot
She remains the most legendary orange saleswoman of all time. Very fruity and extremely “ap-peeling” to men in general and Charles 11 in particular. By the time they met, mind you, Nell Gwynn had moved from flogging fruit to strutting her stuff on the stage.
Jessica Swale’s play is not just a tribute to a resourceful woman of her times who moved from Cheapside to Pall Mall via the royal bed; it’s also a joyous celebration of theatre itself.
Charles it was who reopened the theatres after the Puritan purge of all things entertaining. And Charles it was who allowed women on to the stage for the first time, much to the indignation of some. David Butler gives a splendidly over-the-top performance as Edward Kynaston, an ac-tor of the old school who has played female parts hitherto.
It’s easy to see why the almost permanently priapic King preferred gazing down on Nell than on Edward. Ignoring all directions, she positioned her cleavage under the royal box and the rest, as they say, was history.
Nicol Cortese gives her most memorable Criterion performance yet as Nell. And that’s saying something. She seems to be all over stage and, at one point, down in the audience. Her expressions change as quickly as her costumes. Saucy and flirtatious for sure. Cheeky too. (The former orange-seller is able to take the pith out of the King while keeping her head on her shoulders.) But we’re also given a telling glimpse into the fear and self-doubt of a woman of her time desperately trying to make the most of her assets and talents.
Helped by a set both royal and theatrical, Keith Railton’s direction seems to bring out the best, not only from Nicol and David, but other cast members too numerous to mention.
It helps that the play, winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2016, has some great one-liners. Female actors on the stage? “Imagine,” one of them drily observes, “We’ll be writing plays next.”
Filling theatres, too. Nell Gwynn is sold out for the rest of the week. Justifiably so.
3. Another Review ! This one from Barbara Goulden also appeared on the excellent 'Elementarywhatson' website.
The set spoke volumes. Yards of rich red drapes; an oversized royal coat of arms centre stage: this promised to be lavish. And so it was. The Criterion’s sell-out production of Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn in March was a delight.
Big hair, posh frocks, some gargantuan sexual appetites (well one, anyway): pleasure-seeking, post-Puritan Restoration England was like the 1970s on steroids. A world stage bestrode by some forceful characters - and none more
grab-life-by-the-horns than our eponymous heroine. ln a role that could have been written for her, Nicol Cortese relished the complexities of a woman lauded by the infatuated King Charles ll (Pete Gillam} as “lewd, obstinate, frank" — and truthful. But the bawdy comic timing of this “survivor” hid a woman who knew her sex to be every bit as “knotty and tangly” as men, and used her ready wit to carve out her place in a world run by, and for, the opposite sex.
Such was the compelling power of Cortese‘s performance that even the king struggled for a place that wasn't in her shade. Happily, Swale’s sharp, witty writing gave him plenty of opportunities. And if the string of mistresses (worsted by Nell’s devastating put downs, delivered with trademark cheeky smile) testified to a lust that forced affairs of state to play second fiddle. It seems that, with Nell, Charles found love - and some respite from the weight of expectations on him as his executed fathers son. For her part, Nell’s infatuation with the priapic royal almost led her to betray her roots.
Happily, those roots — in the shape of the King’s Company of actors — went deep. Throughout, the world of the theatre that had given Nell her big break was a hilarious counterpoint to life at court. Hugh Sorrill had our sympathies as exasperated manager Thomas Killigrew, much put upon by his new strumpet-starlet with her hard-to-resist demands, exploiting her crowd pulling value; and by the protestations of his nose ~out-of-joint “female” lead Edward Kynaston, played with an exquisite sense of camp by David Butler.
Director Keith Railton is to be congratulated for drawing a string of fine performances from a strength-in-depth cast. Helen McGowan, as Nell’s dresser and confidante Nancy, showed how good an actor you have to be to play for laughs someone acting badly, while Cathryn Bowler’s imperious Lady Castlemaine showed flashes of the legendary temper the 17”‘ century “original” was said to possess.
The singing and dancing, both ensemble and individual rehearsed to perfection, were a delight; the wardrobe sumptuous. As a diversion from the “wretched, drivel-filled lives" that Kynaston ascribed to us, his company’s audience, it was a memorable and uplifting evening indeed.