Esh Alladi

Nell Gwynn

18/04/17

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

 

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Wit

Unknown

26/01/15

Wit is nobody’s idea of a ‘fun night out at the theatre.’

Indeed, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of middle aged academic, Dr Vivian Bearing (Julie Hesmondhalgh,) who discovers that she has cancer – more specifically, advanced metastatic ovarian cancer – is every bit as bleak as you might expect. I’m certainly offering no spoilers when I tell you that one of Bearing’s first observations, made directly to the audience is that she isn’t going to make it out of the story alive.

Bearing’s speciality is the work of metaphysical poet John Donne, whom she quotes and refers to throughout. She attempts to intellectualise her advancing illness, treating it as though it is something to be studied, observed and reported back on, only to ultimately discover that these things are beyond the scope of such an approach. Death is ultimately the biggest grey area and as she drifts inexorably closer to it, a sense of futility overcomes everything else.

Because of the rarity of her condition, Bearing becomes a sort of prize guinea pig for her doctors, one of whom, Dr Posner (Esh Alladi) is a former student of hers. This elicits one of the play’ss most uncomfortably funny scenes as Posner is obliged to carry out a vaginal examination of the woman who gave him a poor grade for one of his essays. Her conversations with a nurse, Susie Monahan (Jenny Platt) are the only sections where she comes close to revealing anything of herself; and for me that was a problem. In order to fully care about Vivian, I needed to know a little more about her.

In the central role, Hesmondhalgh is extraordinarily good, managing to convey her wisecracking, American character with great aplomb. She is in every scene, so much so that the other actors struggle to make a connection with the audience. I was somewhat dismayed by the fact that I didn’t make enough of an emotional connection with the material, while others around me seemed to be visibly affected by what they were watching. At the play’s (admittedly thrilling) conclusion, the audience stood en masse to give a heartfelt standing ovation – but I thought that overall, the cool, detached style of the writing detracted from the potential power of the work. It was evident that the majority of the audience would have disagreed with me on that one.

As we get up to leave, a couple of women to our right, are crying their eyes out. Perhaps they are reflecting on something that has happened in their own lives that stirs such emotions – or maybe we just weren’t on the right wavelength tonight. At any rate, dry-eyed, we head for home.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney