Latest Review – Nell Gwynn [The Lowry] [UK Tour]


The Lowry, Salford Quays

Until Saturday 4th March, 2017

With Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella already enchanting audiences in the Lowry’s Lyric theatre this week, it seems only fitting that it is now joined in performance by the bawdy and brilliant Nell Gwynn, a true-life rags-to-riches tale, closely echoing the former, and brought gloriously to life courtesy of the English Touring Theatre (in association with Shakespeare’s Globe).

Winner of the 2016 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, Jessica Swale’s celebrated play recounts the famous tale of ‘pretty, witty Nell’ (as Samuel Pepys famously coined her) and her meteoric rise from lowly Drury Lane orange seller (and sometime strumpet) to long-term mistress of Charles II and the most famous and beloved actress on the English stage.

Plucked from virtual obscurity by leading ‘King’s Company’ thespian Charles Hart – much to the chagrin of that most prominent ‘boy player’, Edward ‘Ned’ Kynaston –  and seizing the chance to leave her Coal Yard Alley roots behind her, Gwynn was soon to become the most unlikely of folk heroines, one who not only captured the heart of the King, but also the hearts of the people, embodying the true spirit of Restoration England.

Swale’s play is a fabulous blend of riotous comedy and historical drama, fused with copious helpings of innuendo, yet crafted with an intelligence that effectively grounds the play’s most poignant and tender moments; it’s Stage Beauty meets Shakespeare in Love, with the sarcastic wit and insinuation of Blackadder thrown in for good measure (and maybe just a pinch of Carry On). An emphasis on court politics, Royal indulgence, female equality and European relations certainly does the trick in resonating with a contemporary audience.

Originally played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the Shakespeare’s Globe premiere, with Gemma Arterton taking over the reins for the subsequent West End transfer, the vastly experienced Laura Pitt-Pulford now steps into the leading role with real aplomb. Having not seen either of the two London productions comparisons to the former of course cannot be made, however Pitt-Pulford most definitely makes the role her own. Though dynamic and assured, it is a coquettish, devious and perhaps slightly more restrained and playful portrayal than the vocal guttersnipe many might be expecting.

Strangely resembling a David Williams comedy character, Ben Righton’s iconically bewigged Charles II is a notable standout, as are Sam Marks as Charles Hart, Clive Hayward as the flustered theatre manager Thomas Killigrew, Mossie Smith as Nell’s dresser and confidante Nancy and Nicholas Bishop as the pestered and increasingly uninspired playwright John Dryden.

Director Christopher Luscombe’s production rattles along at a fine pace, playing up the comedy whenever possible, yet staged with an awareness and vitality that reigns things in just enough whenever it verges towards pantomime territory.

In keeping with Luscombe’s original Globe production, Nigel Hess’s traditional song and dance compositions remain fully intact and are brilliantly rendered by the four-strong quartet of Arngeir Hauksson, Sharon Linda, Nicholas Perry and Musical Director Emily Baines. Designer Hugh Durrant also does a fabulous job in scaling down his lavish Globe-style theatre set for the purposes of the tour.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes (approx.), including one 20-minute interval.

Final Performance at The Lowry: Saturday 4th March, 2017.

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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