Nell Gwynn (2018)



Mar 17th to 24th 2018

Written by Jessica Swale with music by Nigel Hess

Directed by Keith Railton & Bill Bosworth

In 2016 Jessica Swale’s play Nell Gwynn won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, after it transferred from the Globe to the West End.

It is story of the rise to fame of the actress who captivated London audiences and won the heart of the ‘Merry Monarch’ told with wit and charm and some cracking songs !

It is occasionally bawdy and includes incidents which, while highly amusing, are not necessarily historically accurate, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be won over by Jessica Swale’s portrayal of a strong female survivor.

And there is plenty to delight audiences: if you prefer history lessons that are enlivened  by the catchy tunes of Nigel Hess, some delightful incidental music played by local musicians, jolly dance numbers and a fantastic collection of colourful Restoration costumes, then this is the show for you !

This ambitious production at the Criterion Theatre in Earlsdon is directed by Keith Railton and the musical director is Bill Bosworth, supported  by the talented instrumentalist Mary Mohan. There are 17th century dances choreographed by Robin Stokoe; wonderful  costumes (and, of course, wigs) assembled and created by the Wardrobe Team under the expert guidance of Pam Coleman and Maureen Liggins; not forgetting a spectacular set designed by Bob Morley and brought into being by Simon Sharpe’s team of set builders and painters to create the atmosphere of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane under the patronage of King Charles II.

The lead part of Nell is played  by Nicol Cortese (who will be remembered by Criterion audiences in her role as the mistress of another monarch in Howard Brenton’s ‘Anne Boleyn’).  Pete Gillam takes on the challenge of portraying Charles II, and Gareth Withers plays Charles Hart, the leading actor in the King’s Company,  another significant figure in Nell’s life, and the one who helped  her to achieve the status of theatrical superstar. Adding to the musical talents of the lead players are well-known actor/singers Helen McGowan as Nancy; Hugh Sorrill as the Theatre Manager Thomas Killigrew , and David Butler as Edward Kynaston, one of the last ‘boy players’  who played the female roles in the days before women were allowed on the stage.

The story starts with the re-opening of the playhouses after the return to power of the Stuart Dynasty in the figure of Charles II, often dubbed ‘the Merry Monarch’ for his love of entertainment of all kinds. He was a notorious womaniser and fathered at least twelve illegitimate children, including two by Nell. 

Called "pretty, witty Nell" by Samuel Pepys, she has been regarded as a living embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England and has come to be considered a folk heroine, with a story echoing the rags-to-royalty tale of Cinderella. She had a prodigious comic talent and became the most famous actor of her day.

The people loved her because she was one of them, but she was also a great entertainer with a ready wit. Clearly, she had also had a loving relationship with the King and when Charles lay dying in 1685, his deathbed wish was reportedly, ‘Let not poor Nelly starve’.