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Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale at The National Archives, Kew

I was met and greeted at the bar by Junis Olmscheid, one of those remarkable women that run so many of our voluntary associations. Junis makes the costumes, does the wigs and makeup, designs and constructs the sets and props. Showing me around the photographic exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the Q2 players she explained that the Q stands for Kew and the 2 records that two previous am-dram societies were merged to form the present Q2. Priced out of their previous home St Luke’s, The Avenue they have found a new home in the National Archives, in a lecture theatre. As a space, it works well, with plenty of space in the foyer, good toilets and a bar.

Nell Gwynn - Bob Gingell, for Q2 Players.
Nell Gwynn – credit Bob Gingell, for Q2 Players.

With a 16-strong cast, authentic costumes, wigs, props, makeup and original music this is a tremendously ambitious undertaking for an am-draw society. But I take my hat – and face mask – off to them. Forgiven the obvious constraints of time and money they have made a remarkably impressive stab at recreating a restoration drama of the 1660s. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It managed to transport me back to the court of Charles II and convincingly evoked the manners and morals of the time. Lovers of Restoration Comedy – The Way of the World, The Man of Mode, The Country Wife – will instantly recognise this play’s combination of refinement and burlesque.

The central character is the prostitute, actress and gambler turned King’s mistress Nell Gwynn (1650 -1687). Pepys famously called her “pretty, witty Nell“; she is an astonishingly fascinating character whose life chimes with so many of our current preoccupations. Written between 2015 – 2017 Jessica Swale’s play focuses on Nell’s journey from an orange street seller (basically a front for a prostitute) to actress and King’s mistress. Cat Lamin is absolutely terrific as Nell. Her ringlets, décolletage, a basket of oranges and frocks are all historically accurate and impeccably put together by Junis Olmscheid and Tamsyn O’Connor. Her cockney accent is strong and we soon realise that this is a woman of the streets. Her use of words like strumpet, slattern (a dirty, untidy woman), cock, and sausage brings the play to life, time and again. Her sharp tongue and streetwise intelligence cut through the pomposity of the aristocracy and the court. Dorothy Parker’s quip that in the morning “I brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue” could’ve been written for Nell. Always aware of her value – “it’s a shilling to watch” is her instant rebuke to any would-be peeping Toms – she is a shrewd businesswoman. Charles Hart (Hugh Cox) recognises her potential and decides to train her to become an actress for the King’s Theatre Drury Lane. This caused controversy, as men played all the parts in the theatres. The actor Edward Kynaston (Tony Cotterill) is the chief opponent and has some good lines ridiculing this new fashion. Women will ruin the theatre he cries. Where have we heard that before?

There follow some terrific scenes of life backstage with tears and tantrums as the Drury Lane Theatre Manager Thomas Killigrew (Toby Doncaster) attempts to get the playwright John Dryden (Dominic Parford) to write a play in a week, Edward Kynaston to stop skulking, Charles Hart to play a minor part not the lead and Nell to believe in herself. And her learn her lines, not easy as she’s illiterate. From the royal box, The King (Tim Williams) spots Nell and is immediately smitten.

The action now shifts to the court. I would’ve liked some signage at this point. A simple backdrop or projection of ‘St James’s Palace’ or wherever we are supposed to be. Nell faces dilemmas at every turn. The King wants her all to himself, basically, she’s on call 24/7. Also as a royal mistress, she can’t appear on stage. So she’s torn between the Court and Drury Lane. Although she’s driven a hard bargain (£500 a year, a house on Pall Mall, a carriage, silks and a lady) she misses both her ex-lover and teacher Charles Hart and the stage. Secondly, she now finds herself in much deeper waters politically. The Machiavellian Lord Arlington (Marcus Ezekiel) is watching her every move and her rival Lady Castlemaine (Juliette Sexton) gives her what for. As this were not enough to be getting on with her mother Ma Gwynn (Simone White) a brothel madam and sister Rose turn up unannounced smoking a clay pipe and doing what family members do, namely start accusing Nell of getting above herself and forgetting where she’s from. Despite Nell’s insistence that she’s sent her mother “coin“. This is one of the strongest scenes in the play and hits home with true force.

The relationship between Nell and the King is surprisingly nuanced. The King clearly loved her and went to great lengths to secure her loyalty cleverly getting under Nell’s defences by pretending to be in love with her acting rival Moll Davis. This rivalry ends in hilarious scatological mayhem, which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “bedchamber crisis“. The ingenuity Nell shows in putting paid to this rival is topped by her vanquishing of the Kings new French mistress (a move in the politics between France and Britain) Louise de Kerouaille (Juliet Sexton again) in the battle of the hats. Top cat and top hat as it were. This rivalry between the catholic and the protestant mistresses gave rise to Nell’s most famous one-liner, which Cat Lamin delivers superbly:

Good people you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore.

Jessica Swale quite rightly gives nobility to Nell’s life. She emphasises her wit, ingenuity, resilience, guile and entrepreneurship. She sees off many rivals. Makes a career for herself in the theatre. Is a successful mistress. Ends up with a substantial property portfolio. Has two sons by the King, both ennobled. The play ends with Nell rejoining the company at Drury Lane, and writing a scene with Dryden. She has not only survived but found her own voice. From illiterate prostitute to actress and writer. However, there was a price to be paid. For Nell died aged just 37 of syphilis. Somewhat surprisingly the play makes no mention of this. A minor quibble in what is a really impressive production. It brings Nell to life and will I’m sure encourage more people to read more about this remarkable woman.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Nell Gwynn, to be held at the National Archives. The playing dates are:
Thursday 28th October, at 7.45pm
Friday 29th October, at 7.45pm
Saturday 30th October, at 2.30pm and 7.45pm

Author

  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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