Edinburgh Fringe 2015
June, 1669: Nineteen-year old Nell Gwyn, actress and mistress to the King is worried that she is being type cast in tragic roles. Nell fears that if she cannot be her sexy, lively self onstage, the King will fall out of love with her off it. So, aided by the audience in the Pit, she concocts a plan…
A tiny venue with the seating in the round. There is corpse on the floor, encased in white. After a moment the corpse bounces up and asks ‘do you like my legs?’, then springs to her feet and asks again ‘ do you like my legs?’. She becomes quite insistent as she works her way round the audience.
It is June 1669 and nineteen year old Nell Gwyn is celebrated for her comic acting, particularly when she gets to dress as a boy and show off her legs. However, Charles Hart, her manager and former lover, keeps casting her in tragic roles to embarrass her in front of her new amour, Charles II. Nell fears that if she cannot be her lively, sexy, comic self the King will lose interest in her. She conspires with the audience in the pit to concoct a plan win Hart round and consolidate her role as comedienne and courtesan. And it is a matter of urgency as the King is showing interest elsewhere. Nell makes no secret of being a whore, is in fact very proud of it, although she would like to progress to the new role recently arrived from France, that of mistress.
Laura Ingram has written an endearing and vivacious character who holds our attention for the hour long show with ease. Lucy Formby as Nell confides in us, moving smoothly between a moment of confidence in the ear of an audience member to declaiming part of the tragedy that Hart has cast her in. The language is that of the period and could easily become monotonous but Formby delivers the text in an appealing and natural manner. She varies the pace and emphasis and my attention never wandered. There are several other characters – some played by Nell, others by the audience. One is cast and addressed as Mr Dryden the playwright, another as ‘My Lord Buckingham’, and yet another as Nell’s dresser, or perhaps more accurately, her undresser. However, Formby is also sensitive to the audience and seems able to spot those who will be comfortable with being addressed directly, or being enticed on stage to undo her stays.
For all that is a comedy and Nell no martyr there are also echoes of issues that still concern theatre now – the lack of parts for women (despite the fact that Charles II passed a law shortly after his restoration that women’s parts must be played by women) and their short life upon the stage ‘my person and my wit my only dowry are… a dowry that does not augment with age’ whereas the men, Charles Hart in particular ‘does grow in dignity with ev’ry year that’s passed, and I’ll own the weighty parts do suit him well of late’.
There is no set beyond a couple of stools set among the audience and a basket of oranges and sweetmeats leaving Nell to use the compact space to full effect by simply creating the pictures for us.
Having died dramatically there is a lull before Nell reappears to deliver her final epilogue – the reason is a costume moment but it feels a little too long and, being near the end of the play, left the audience wondering if it was the end. It also affects the pace which has bowled along until then. If that off stage time could be trimmed it would sharpen the end of the play.
Overall, this is a delightful play which will whisk you to the 17th century, entertain you royally and send you on your way with a sweetmeat.