Amateur dramatics, done well, do not require reviewers to take into account that the production in question is an amateur production in the first place. Such is the case in this Tower Theatre Company production of Nell Gwynn, the Jessica Swale play. I wasn’t aware Nell Gwynn was even available for amateur companies to perform, so soon after its 2016 run on Shaftesbury Avenue and a tour in 2017 that included a stop at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (where it was originally performed in 2015).
It’s an ambitious play to perform, with a large number of parts given ample character development. Grace Wardlaw, in the title role, has a pleasant voice – a number of songs are woven into the narrative. Charles Hart (Mike Hadjipateras), an actor in the King’s Company, insists Nell cannot project (which I personally thought was a bizarre judgement to pronounce on a fruit seller), and trains her in this and many other aspects of theatre performance. It’s almost reminiscent of the advice dispensed about acting in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
I could, technically speaking, pronounce the scene in which Nell Gwynn first learns the basics of stagecraft as having fallen short: she projects quite sufficiently before she learns how to project, a bit like the nuns in Sister Act The Musical who can evidently sing before they are taught to sing. But this has to be the way, as the alternative (that is, not projecting and therefore leaving the audience not being able to hear dialogue properly), though more authentic, would be far, far worse.
The play is set during the reign of King Charles II (James Dart), though the dialogue is more twenty-first century than seventeenth, and thus accessible. John Dryden (Felix Grainger), the resident playwright in the King’s Company, writes so quickly and under pressure that it is no wonder he eventually succumbs to writer’s block. The ever-increasing paper pile of discarded revisions as the first performance of a new play especially written for Nell Gwynn looms, is an excellent running gag. Social commentary is supplied when the company’s manager, Thomas Killigrew (Simon Vaughan) has been unable to find a play amongst the classics with a woman at its centre (there is, of course, Euripides’ Medea, but Killigrew, or rather the King, wants plays performed by the King’s Company to have happy endings).
The costumes are a delight to see, and there’s a glorious moment when female members of the ensemble take on female characters in a Restoration play (that is, a play within the play). Given the convention at the time for all stage roles to be played by men, this was a case of women playing men playing women. It appears that the appearance of a woman playing a woman caused more consternation even than Nell Gwynn being a prostitute. Edward Kynaston (Simon Brooke), the most hostile member of the King’s Company towards Gwynn, relentlessly pursued a greater understanding of whatever character he either begrudgingly or enthusiastically taking on. I note from the programme that this is his first play, which makes his authoritative performance all the more remarkable.
With several stories going on, including affairs of state brought to the attention of the King by Lord Arlington (Daniel Watson), there’s a lot to take in, keeping the audience engaged. For whatever reason, the running time was slightly longer than the previous West End production, but at no point did it drag. The band, visible on stage and led by Jonathan Norris, did brilliantly, themselves dressed in period costume. The songs were mostly bawdy, and I loved the one making irreverent fun out of a French guest of the King, Louise de Keroualle (Clare Dodkins). Overall, there were a lot of laughs in a very warm and exuberant production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
It is 1660. The Puritans have run away and Charles II has exploded onto the scene with a love of all things loud, French and sexy. And at Drury Lane, a young Nell Gwynn is selling oranges for sixpence. Little does she know who’s watching.
Premiered at The Globe and winner of the 2016 Olivier Best Comedy award, Nell Gwynn charts the rise of an unlikely heroine, from her roots in Coal Yard Alley to her success as Britain’s most celebrated actress, and her hard-won place in the heart of the king. But at a time when women are second-class citizens, can her charm and spirit protect her from the dangers of the court? And at what cost?
The Tower Theatre Company Presents
By Jessica Swale
Directed by Roger Beaumont
The Tower Theatre performing at
the Bridewell Theatre, off Fleet Street.