june 2018 | Volume 168
Charlotte Wright and Marc Leblanc. Photographer: Nancy Caldwell.
Nell Gwynn was an actress during the reign of Charles II in the 1660s and ‘70s, one of the first women to act on the English stage. She was also Charles’ mistress. In Jessica Swale’s 2015 comedy, Nell Gwynn, she begins as a Cockney commoner and sometime prostitute. The play explores her unlikely rise to fame, success and notoriety, the changing nature of London’s Restoration theatres, and the politics of late 17th century England in the interregnum between the Puritan Revolution and the Glorious Revolution.
If that last point seems a little obscure, that’s because for a Canadian audience it probably is. Restoration stage history is almost equally obscure to most of us but Swale makes that fun, adding some burlesque elements and a contemporary feminist sensibility. Director Adam Henderson and his game cast pump up the fun quotient in this entertaining United Players production without going excessively overboard.
Charlotte Wright is terrific as Nell, an illiterate orange-seller when we first meet her. Her good looks and great instincts lead Hart (excellent Emmett Lee Stang), the charismatic leading man in the company, to teach her all the stock gestures of 1660s acting.
Killigrew, the company manager (David C. Jones), takes her on because women are the new rage on London’s stages. The actor who plays the company’s female leads, Kynaston (very funny Brian Hinson), objects to a woman playing Desdemona: “What does she have that I don’t?” Answer: “Tits.” When Hart introduces him to Nell, saying “I think she has something unusual,” Kynaston replies: “Syphilis?”
Nell is always her own woman, performing double entendre dirty song-and-dance routines and rewriting the lame females created by house playwright Dryden (Paul Ferancik): “Is that really what you think women want!?” She’s no less tough-minded when King Charles himself (Marc LeBlanc, nicely resisting the urge to make Charles an utter fool or fop) becomes smitten with her and invites her to move into the palace. She does what she does on her own terms.
Other women also get significant roles in the play and its changing world: Leeza Udovenko as the King’s previous mistress, Breanne Doyle as Nell’s sister Rose, Mattie Shisko as Nell’s comically bitchy dresser Nancy. Sally Clark has a delicious cameo as Charles’ furious Spanish Queen Catherine, having to cope with His Majesty’s mistresses.
If the first act is all about Nell’s rise, the second act charts her on the downslope. But this being a comedy, she will at the end rise again. She will survive getting pregnant and getting fired, political threats from the King’s minister, Arlington (Gordon Law), sexual threats from a new French mistress (Udovenko again), and Charles’ death. The second act contains most of the play’s obscure politics and history, and it drags.
What saves it are Henderson’s consistently delightful production numbers: a running gag of four actors announcing the King on kazoo-like trumpets, a very funny routine involving a giant chapeau that Nell uses to mock Charles’ new French squeeze, and the hilarious “tragic” finale in which everyone suffers a highly dramatic stage death.
Jocelyn Tam provides piano accompaniment and Lina Fitzner choreography; costumes, wigs and make-up by CS Fergusson-Vaux; set by Chris Bayne, sound by Zakk Harris and lighting by Michael Methot, though Henderson keeps the house lights up throughout the show. If women can be actors, too, aren’t we all?
get in touch with vancouverplays:
Vancouver's arts and culture website providing theatre news, previews and reviews