English Touring Theatre

Nell Gwynn


King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Nell Gwynn is one of those historical characters that most of us know a little bit about. I knew, for instance, that she was a former prostitute with a sideline in selling oranges and I also knew that she had a famous affair with King Charles II, the ‘Merry Monarch’. I didn’t know that she was one of the first female actors ever to grace the English stage and that in her short meteoric career, she was acclaimed as something of a ground-breaker. And I didn’t know that a history lesson could be so enjoyable.,

This superb production from the English Touring Theatre of Jessica Swales’ Olivier Award-winning comedy is a delight in just about every respect. From the superbly realised set, through the opulent costumes and the lively period music, this is fabulous to behold, while Swales’ incredibly witty script, replete with double entendres and bawdy observations galore, will have you laughing heartily all the way through.

We are first treated to a brief excerpt from the latest production of the Theatre Royal, where the infamous actor Charles Hart (Sam Marks) is showing us examples of his celebrated stagecraft. He’s interrupted by a voice from the stalls and onto the stage wanders Nell (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and Hart quickly realises that she has some real potential as an actress. He takes her under his wing (and into his bed) and, pretty much overnight, a new star of the stage is born, much to the disgust of  Edward Kynaston (Esh Alladi), who up this point has managed to monopolise all the Theatre’s plum female roles. Nell becomes an overnight sensation but, of course, it isn’t long before King Charles II (Ben Righton) pays the theatre a visit and he too becomes somewhat enamoured of this new talent. Whereupon matters become rather complicated…

Nell Gwynn is proof, if ever it were needed, that historical costume drama doesn’t have to be dull and fusty – indeed, this is as bright and brilliant as you could possibly wish. Christopher Luscombe’s direction is accomplished and Laura Pitt-Pulford is sensational in the lead role but, if I’m honest, there isn’t a weak link in what really is an ensemble piece. And, should you find some of the antics on display hard to believe, a quick online search will reassure you that pretty much everything that happens here is supported by genuine historical evidence.

If you’re in the mood for a great night’s entertainment, this is one you really shouldn’t miss. Form an orderly queue.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney


The Herbal Bed

English Touring Theatre

The Lowry, Salford


The Herbal Bed: The Secret Life of Shakespeare’s Daughter takes the sparse historical details of a suit for slander and weaves them into an engaging tale. The facts are few: Susanna Hall (Shakespeare’s oldest daughter) was accused, in 1613, of having an affair with a local man, Rafe Smith. The accuser, Jack Lane, was convicted of slander, and excommunicated for his crime.

Playwright Peter Whelan extrapolates a convincing narrative from these scant details; indeed, in this version of events, Lane is telling the truth: Susanna and Rafe have indeed been intimate. But, with help from her reluctant maid, Susanna takes the moral high ground, and Lane is exposed as a spiteful liar.

It’s an interesting play, with strong performances. Michael Mears, as Vicar-General Goche, is a real delight: a perfect incarnation of lugubrious self-righteousness, revelling in the sordid details of the sin he so abhors. Matt Whitchurch, as the hapless Lane, is also very good: a brash, emphatic performance, yes, but also a convincing one, and a welcome relief in what is overall a very measured piece.

If there’s a problem with this production, it’s in the measured tone. There’s no peril here, no real tension. We know the outcome of the case; we know Susanna’s reputation – and her marriage – survive the accusations sent her way. And nobody gets carried away by emotion: apart from one brief moment of passion, Rafe and Susanna behave with sober propriety; Susanna’s husband, John Hall (Jonathan Guy Lewis) remains calm throughout. The affair, such as it is, doesn’t really seem to matter; no one’s heart is broken; no one really cares.

In the programme, director James Dacre says that Whelan “never imposes an unrealistic crisis for the sake of good drama.” And, of course, no one wants to see an unrealistic crisis in a serious play like this. But what would be wrong with a realistic crisis? It’s a fictionalised account; the possibilities are limitless. And a little excitement would go a long way.

Despite this niggle, I enjoyed The Herbal Bed. It’s intelligently conceived, and well delivered – certainly one to watch.

4 stars

Susan Singfield