FringeReview UK 2017
Nell Gwynn arrives at Theatre Royal Brighton. Jessica Swale’s 2015 Globe hit is directed again by Chris Luscombe with the same creatives: Nigel Hess’s music with a band led by James Maloney, and more elaborate Drury Lane-type interior by Hugh Durrant is liberated from the Globe’s space. Binnie Bowerman’s costumes and Victoria Young’s wigs deserve more than a puff.
Jessica Swale’s 2015 Globe hit Nell Gwynn arrives at one of its spiritual homes, Theatre Royal Brighton. It’s directed again by Chris Luscombe with the same creatives: Nigel Hess’s catchy period-style music with a live band led by James Maloney, and a far more elaborate Drury Lane-type interior by Hugh Durrant sweeping in court parquet with a set where purple insinuates itself. Liberated from the Globe’s space it takes on Restoration swank, stink and plush. Binnie Bowerman’s costumes dazzle from symbolic orange to emerald, and Victoria Young’s wigs deserve more than a puff. Nell Gwynn’s come of age: each cast stands on its own merits.
Swale’s unique: as in her 2013 debut Blue Stockings she writes a play of feline-scratching wit that’s a feelgood hommage, where intellectual pyrotechnics never feel out of place; for instance passages in Portuguese (Charles II’s suffering Queen) and French (the Catholic Whore). Both tenderly cut to English, a queen’s halting dignity (Joanne Howarth memorable in this as in Ma Gwynn), Gwynn’s own Edith Piaf turn guying her rival in newly-learned parley-voo. And we get someone to translate even if it’s Gwynn’s dresser Nancy, Mossie Smith’s vivid portrayal of someone who lives for the stage but hates being pushed on it. She worked for that Moliere and that’s where she can translate and indeed tutor Gwynn.
Swale’s theatre-making before she turned playwright exhales from this play, which includes sudden musical sighs as well as Hess’s infectious dance numbers to set the aisles clapping in time. It relishes too the machinery of stage rehearsals from the get-go to the get-out. False starts, muddled prologues, and a miraculously Frayn-like attempt to get dresser Joanne Howarth to act but bamboozle her on a word, elicits Swale’s compulsion to delight audiences with brilliantly-lit farce. When she’s not doing that sallies of wit clip your ears.
Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell Gwynn can sing beautifully as well as do the other thing as her song has it, noticed by leading man Charles Hart (an appealingly disappointed Sam Marks). Again the drama’s satisfyingly shaped. We begin and almost end with these erstwhile lovers where pert impro wins Hart’s heart as well as head, and it’s not the lumber of pre-Restoration tradition but Gwynn’s instinctual talent and sensing her audience that turns her fortunes with the company, as blustering Killigrew the not unkindly but anxious manager realizes. Clive Hayward inches towards Gwynn; you can see the professional in him flinch through eye-blinking prejudice. Illiterate? She’s learned by Hart.
Turning the King’s head amongst other parts though isn’t in the plan. Though Gwynn soon resorts to sending a laxative cake to her dramatic rival Moll Davies causing her to be, Gwynn suggests ‘faecetious’ in flagrante with Charles. So Gwynn’s learned to pun in Latin…
Nor is it for the ex-woman: think Stage Beauty. Esh Alladi’s wonderfully camp Edward Kynaston with linen breasts is not only outraged but insists on method-acting, ‘backstory’ as he pleads two hundred-odd expressions with a fan. It almost lends pathos, but Swale’s determined to load that at key points only, so the essential joy of this conjuration’s never shadowed. There’s some real impro or rewrite not in the play previously: the King’s at one point persuaded to think of staying in Europe. Cue applause, at least down south. And his riposte to own his government: ‘Playhouses are a valuable national asset’ cheerfully challenges ours (cue whoops). That was in the original, sadly always needed.
There’s a little row of audience-nudges, a forlorn scenario of lovers on a galleon hitting an iceberg, or the (here affably harassed Nicholas Bishop) dramatist Dryden’s saying his cousin wanted to write a play about a castaway, quite absurd; Gwynn says it’d make a book. This cousin Jonathan Swift was rising four in 1671 but it’s a delicious throwaway.
Darkness always comes stealing from the court. First, Charles’s faux-pas in making mistress Lady Castlemaine Bedchamber-maid to the Queen, as Pandora Clifford’s spitfire role hoves into view. Portrayed as Medusa by Lely the court painter, few of his orifices escape her rammed paintbrushes. Clifford’s role is to be affronted, whether as Castlemaine or later Louise the ‘Catholic Whore’. Clifford’s great moment is the end of Act One confronting Gwynn. She realises: ‘Oh dear God. You love him. You poor impotent child…’ Here the heart-stopping pause isn’t observed and the point of this great reveal is blunted, but it’s a blemish soon corrected. Pitt-Pulford’s Gwynn can’t help breaking into song every time she confronts either Castlemaine or Louise, the latter in her elaborate French insult with a massive hat out-brimming Louise’s ambition, with a song that rhymes Beaujolais! You’d have to see it and Pitt-Pulford’s finest moments spark here too, bravura and terror commingled.
Michael Cochrane’s vivified corrupt aristocrats for so long it’s almost a relief to see him insinuating chief advisor Arlington with a touch of pathos when Gwynn spies out a new role for him in his downfall, where Cochrane modulates a rigid collapse like a pack of soiled house-cards. This after he’s threatened her, even Castlemaine previously, and caused more to Gwynn’s sister, Rose. Pepter Lankuse who’s Gwynn’s Cheapside conscience volleys between support and final accusations as Haworth’s Ma Gwynn disintegrates before us, snaffling silver as she goes.
Ben Righton’s youthful king perhaps lacks the gravitas ideally suited – a piece of toasted Cochrane would do’t. But he’s a sprightly runner and the king died at fifty-five. Despite his love of ‘a complete absence of complicated women’ Charles can’t avoid Gwynn’s complex honesty. His scenes with Pitt-Pulford’s Gwynn gain by the intimacy of lovers in their prime, as indeed Charles was when he met Gwynn, twenty years his junior. When he says simply, finally ‘I love you’ it’s credible of him as well as history. And spaniel jokes find their target.
The final scene’s a vehicle for the epilogue, and beautifully-crafted whimsy. So several characters were dead before the King, and Gwynn’s return to rescue the players after they’ve considered Lear with a happy ending as well as Dryden’s Tempest rewrite with extra sister Dorinda… it might be fanciful, but who knows?
And the epilogue, Gwynn’s own, so pretty, witty, suddenly heart-breaking and heart-warming at the same time, is the reward. The Restoration stage – if not enough of its own plays – continues to fascinate playwrights with its explosive, perilous freedoms which women briefly swayed and tasted – and Aphra Behn enshrined. Such strategies here distantly recall April de Angelis’s fine Playhouse Creatures but Nell Gwynn sets out to mirror the sheer romp in Gwynn’s legend. We’ve recently enjoyed The Libertine’s brilliantly-lit darkness revived too, and Nell Gwynn is the antipode to Stephen Jeffreys’ plangent masterpiece. Just as clever, as fiendishly witty, Swale’s orange-girl raillery refuses the other’s command to dislike. It ends too, in a startling reality, and tenders a shock.