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Sydney Review – Nell Gwynn: bawdy, bitchy and biting

Photo © Chris Lundie

 

Nell Gwynn

By Jessica Swale

A New Theatre production

Directed Deborah Jones

New Theatre

542 King Street

Newtown

 

Season: August 8 – September 8, 2018. Duration: 155 minutes plus interval. Bookings: newtheatre.org.au

 

If you have not heard of Nell Gwynn, you will hear a lot more of her from now on. This play tells the story, based on true events, of a pauper girl who, through a series of chance opportunities, becomes the darling of the English stage in the 1660s. She catches the eye of King Charles II, becomes his favoured mistress, and even gives birth to their two sons.

The story, characters, and script of this play are first class. The playwright, Jessica Swale, takes the audience ‘backstage’ of the English theatre world and Royal Court. The characters are real, not larger-than-life; the script is witty, clever and sometimes lewd and gives everybody in society a chance to be equally insulted, whether they be man or woman, Catholic or Protestant, kings or beggars.

Not surprisingly, the play won the 2016 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

Nell Gwynn is a slum girl whose mother runs a brothel, and she attends the theatres in the hope of selling oranges to the patrons. One day, her loud and quick-witted comments are noted by a leading actor Charles Hart. He sees much promise in Nell and trains her to be an ‘actor-ess’ for his company’s comedies.

Nell soon becomes a very popular performer on stage and is a real crowd-pleaser. King Charles II is an avid theatre-goer, is smitten by her raw and unpolished nature and woos her with money, accommodation and other trappings of wealth. How this then affects her relationships with her family, friends, acting peers and royalty are then explored.

Director Deborah Jones succeeds in breathing real life into this production. With a large cast (16 actors) and many set changes, she has a lot to contend with. The New Theatre stage is ample, so the opportunity is available to spread out and let the actors take flight. Well done to Set Designer John Cervenka, Costume Designer Deborah Mulhall and everyone on the Creative Team. The song and dance routines were an unexpected bonus as well.

The star of the show is Bishanyia Vincent as Nell Gwynn. Bishanyia’s challenge was to make Nell a strong, forceful, and street-wise woman who is not intimidated by anyone, including the King. She came across as cheeky and playful but with the intelligence to manipulate the Royal Court advisors to her own advantage. I felt that she gave a fabulous performance.

The whole entourage of fellow actors gave memorable performances also. Notable were Lloyd Allison-Young as King Charles II, Rupert Reid as Charles Hart, Shan-Ree Tan as Thomas Killigrew, Steve Corner as John Dryden and Peter Mountford as Lord Arlington. Steven Ljubovic as Edward Kynaston had some hilarious moments as the company’s ‘female-actor’, facing an uncertain future as actual women were becoming legally allowed on stage.

Naomi Livingstone spoke French as Louise de Keroualle. I didn’t understand a word she said but I could listen to that accent for ages!

Compliments to these actors as well: Simon Lee as Ned Spiggett, Adam Van den Bok as a Heckler/William, Eleanor Ryan as Rose Gwynn, Debra Bryan as Nancy, Aimee Crighton as a Servant, Kate Bookallil as Lady Castlemaine, Genevieve Muratore as Queen Catherine and Susan Jordan as Old Ma Gwynn.

I really enjoyed this New Theatre production. It is lengthy (155 minutes + interval) however there was no reason to clock watch. Although a comedy, it is sprinkled with dramatic moments and musical interludes.

It’s bawdy, bitchy and biting, all in one! You’ll leave feeling entertained, educated and inspired to tell your friends the ‘Nell Gwynn’ story.