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Brighton Fringe 2024

Low Down

Ryan J-W Smith’s third verse-play 2019 Pretty, Witty Nell starring Hannah Attfield arrives with Rogue Shakespeare directed by Smith, to Regency Bubble, ending its run on June 1st.

An outstanding gem.


Written and Directed by Ryan J-W Smith, Props and Lighting by Rogue Shakespeare.

Till June 1st. Then touring. Nest at Tunbridge Wells on June 29th-30th.


I, Eleanor, or Nell, a Gwynne by birth

In 1650 I begin my days;

From hoi polloi – as common as the earth;

What mighty changes come from little plays!

Ryan J-W Smith’s seventh verse-play 2019 Pretty, Witty Nell starring Hannah Attfield arrives with Rogue Shakespeare directed by Smith, to Regency Bubble, ending its run on June 1st. It re-emerges in Tunbridge Wells on 29th-30th June, then ranges further afield. Other Smith works will be presented at St Albans.

Winner of two Hollywood Fringe Awards and having this hour-long play premiered there, Smith has scored with his 2006 (revised 2016) Sweet Love Adieu, mounted days ago at BOAT; and his 2016 Love’s Labours Won.

Verse-plays are a speciality: Sweet Love Adieu is both Smith’s first and radically revised fifth, and Love’s Labours Won his third. This makes Smith, particularly in the past decade, the most prolific – and crucially, experienced – verse-drama writer in the UK. His natural gifts have grown exponentially too – witness the complete overhaul of his first verse-play to iambic pentameter.

What rough magic wakes us from our Shakespearean bed? We’re tangled with Nell, someone whose oranges are worth waking up with. “You want to “squeeze my peaches?!” – you’re too sweet!” It’s over 60 years later at the Restoration. Gone are Dryden’s Roman-bronzed couplets, though Dryden will arrive, mangled into ABAB. He thought he was safe. “What mighty changes come from little plays!” is pure tweaked Dryden, magnificently impertinent with its antiphonal saw. Smith shifts targets for another age.

Attfield is an ideal Nell. She not only acts with all the aplomb, the Restoration asides and quicksilver wit you’d expect. And the warmth to go with it. She displays enormous fluency in the iambic pentameters Smith casts his verse in. She deploys enjambement, breaks the line knowingly, pays off the almost Cole-Porter-like rhymes and tweaks the uplift on verses that point a story or land a tale.

More than this, she’s superb at gradating her voice from conspiratorial stage whisper on a few occasions, rising to the occasional scream. Attfield never deploys the full reach of her voice save once, incandescent with pain.

Though kin, this isn’t quite the Nell of Jessica Swayle’s eponymous Nell Gwynne, first seen at the Globe in 2015. That too, portrays Nell as genuinely in love with Charles II, and Smith – as he claims – has nailed his research. This Nell necessarily confides to an audience and naturally portrays other characters including the king in a motley of props from crown to Cromwellian wig.

Registers of different personae haunt this performance, though necessarily it’s Nell’s perkiness and confiding tone needed in an hour-long play; not the full gamut of near-tragedy in Swayle. Nevertheless, there’s more tragedy hinted here, including the possible death by poisoning of Nell’s second son whilst studying in France: one fact most of us never suspected.

The only thing missing is the allusion in the subtitle: “The Protestant Whore” when Nell, mistaken for her French Catholic rival Lady Portsmouth, has her coach overturned by a mob. “I pray you desist, good people! I am the Protestant whore!” That garnered cheers in the 1670s, but there’s plenty to cheer here.

Nell Gwynne, with her catchphrases like “Oranges are not the only fruit” latterly made famous by Jeanette Winterson, is one of those characters whose wit and presence ensured she had some agency in her own portrayal.

There’s first history told with diverting brevity and energy from the Civil War. And blink-and-miss details pointed up like the Breda note – Charles II’s undertaking to be merciful on his return – and Dryden-like near-zeugmas: “Upon his birthday, Charles and London wed.”

Above all Nell’s own history takes centre-stage in the early 1660s, from aristocratic “patronage” through actor Charles Hart – signalled by Attfield with a comedic-leonine-lothario purr “rrr” pawing straight out of Leslie Philips, one of her many inflections. It sours like Nell’s previous patron Lord Buckhurst’s aimiability. That’s despite his having dropped her; because Nell catches the eye of the king.

Smith and Attfield though don’t flinch from some of Nell’s darker dealings. For instance her predecessor as actress and mistress

Ms Davis who touches the king’s -um – affections with a pathetic tragic song, is mocked by Nell. Nell’s complicit with the playwright who writes her a parody; which Nell promptly burlesques. She gets away with it, then delvers her coup de grace, an emetic delivered to Ms Davis before she’s due to dine with Charles.

Each flurry of verse-dispatch involves for instance Pepys’ approbation. Particularly when Nell plays comedy. When Hart takes revenge, he gives her tragedy only. The sheer graft of performance is given a Smith workout:

For lazy actors thinking they work hard!

These plays would run a week, or less, at most:

A repertoire from every rhyming bard!

Our season from September through to June,

With more than fifty plays upon our lips!

No wonder girls like Mary Davis swoon,

To take a break from witty rhyming quips!

That doesn’t just highlight the dinning work and milieu, it also shows how Smith and Attfield speed the audience with verse-narrative and the actor’s rippling inflection. There’s drollery with Dryden too, invoking one of his best-known plays, The Conquest of Granada, also Nell’s final part:

The rhyming prologue I remember still –

But I shall not repeat it here today,

For poets like their verse within their play!

Attfield plucks the Penguin Aphra Behn and does quote from it, Behn praising Nell.  When Nell retires from the stage though, happily the verse goes with her. Dispensing charity, the Chelsea Pensioners, or indeed touching her rivalry with that Catholic Whore, Louise from Brittany, future Duchess of Portsmouth, who feigned love. Louise is invoked with a fan and an accent. Nell never sought ennoblement, save for her sons to secure their future.

The king’s decline and Nell’s – and some surprise charity toward her – come swiftly. It’s thought the king infected Nell – who died of a stroke slowly – with his own syphilis. Attfield though shows Nell verse-rampant to the end.

This is a show worth savouring, seeing twice and buying the text of (it comes with the other two verse plays in a new revised 2024 edition). Attfield is outstanding, and her performance as durable and tuned as her verse-speaking itself; which possess a miraculous importunity. Smith’s verse is both contemporary and yet like the best of such work from Ranjit Bolt through to Mike Bartlett in Charles III, cast in ringing bronze too. An outstanding gem.