Jessica Swales

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