There have been more than a few new plays in recent years that have been set several centuries ago – I very much enjoyed, for instance, Farinelli and the King in its West End run towards the end of 2015. Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III is a wonderful show too. Here, The Restoration of Nell Gwyn (not the one starring Gemma Arterton, for her character is called Nell Gwynn, with two ‘n’s – goodness me, there certainly is demand for period plays at the moment) is devoid of lords, barons and viscounts, and is therefore brilliantly refreshing for its complete lack of protocol and procedure – there is none needed.
It’s witty, and laced with a bawdy wit at that, as Margery (Angela Curran), the trusted servant to Nell (Elizabeth Mansfield) constantly engages with the audience, acting as chorus and narrator in addition to her carrying out her maid duties with flair. There’s something exceedingly British about this play, in its subtle hints and its swearing-but-not-swearing phrases. Plenty of explanatory notes are supplied by Margery in aside after aside, carrying the whole audience through the narrative, presented in a (mostly) light-hearted manner.
I say ‘mostly’ as there are aspects that are hard-hitting, giving the show added weight: it’s not all fluffy jokes and innuendo. “Would that we lived in a better world where men no longer abuse children for their pleasure,” sighs Margery, with a knowing look to the audience. Elsewhere, women’s status in seventeenth-century society is sensitively considered. The inclusion of music and song varies the tone and pace of the production – for the better: it’s very pleasant to listen to the Baroque numbers included. During dialogue, both Nell and Margery are strongly-willed and full of their own thoughts and opinions, and it was fascinating to listen to opposing points of view, whether it’s the politics of Oliver Cromwell or the correct way to hold a fan.
It’s delightful when something billed as a comedy actually turns out to be just that. And there are certain punchlines that are laugh-out-loud funny, if uncouth. The play is remarkably accessible, sparing in its use of archaic terms, and generous in its observational humour. Perhaps it helps that Nell Gwyn was such a gregarious and vibrant person anyway, and is brought back (restored, even) by this production that provides a wry look at another side of life, away from the lords and ladies of the royal palaces.
But the modest surroundings do not mean everything is threadbare. There are some fabulous costumes, which come to the fore mostly through an exploration of Gwyn’s theatrical past. Those more qualified than I am to elaborate on the fabrics, patterns and fashions of the era could comment far more extensively. I simply put it to you that if you are into this sort of thing, the costumes flounced about in Act Two are worth the price of a ticket in themselves. If you’re not, then arguably the show loses its way slightly after the interval, but this is really quite a negligible point.
I am shaking off a winter cold and cough at the time of writing, and while I profess no medical qualifications, what I can say is that this show has aided my recovery, or at least has done nothing to hinder it. For laughter really is the best medicine. All in all, in the absence of anything substantial to dislike, I declare this bold production an absolute success. A firm, fun and full-bodied experience.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Ensemble and York Theatre Royal present the London premiere of The Restoration of Nell Gwyn by Steve Trafford, with songs by Henry Purcell, at Park Theatre (PARK90) from 26 January – 20 February. This two-hander stars Olivier Award nominee Elizabeth Mansfield and Angela Curran from ITV’s hit series ‘The Job Lot’.
The Restoration of Nell Gwyn
Park Theatre, Clifton Terrace, Finsbury Park, N4 3JP
26th January – 20 February 2016
Performances: Tue – Sat 7.45pm, plus Thu & Sat 3.15pm (except Thu 28 January 3.15pm) Q+A: Free Q+A directly after the performance on Fri 29 January with Beatrix Campbell OBE
Booking: www.parktheatre.co.uk / 020 7870 6876