Review; Nell Gwynn at Cambridge Arts Theatre is comic perfection
- Credit: ©Tristram Kenton
The English Touring Theatre have come to town with a production that captures all the joy of theatre and left the audience at The Cambridge Arts filled with delight and the sincerest appreciation.
Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn, a play about the iconic first actress of the London stage and mistress to King Charles II, captures a period of British history where pleasure was prioritised and from cobbler to King of England there was no better place to feel alive than at the theatre. The audience at the Arts unanimously agreed.
The evening is filled with fantastic comic lines, on Lord Arlington’s suggestion that the King could leave Europe, Charlies replies, “No-one would be that stupid,” and steeped in witty repartee and energetic song and dance routines. Swale’s play explores the arrival of the actress to the London stage, life in the theatre and in the gutter outside, as well as the court of King Charles II.
The production is sumptuously designed by Hugh Durrant, with tongue and cheek frivolity to satisfy any restoration dandy. Both set and costume are fabulously larger than life caricatures of king and country.
Laura Pitt-Pulford is terrific as Nell Gwynn, she captivates the audience from her very first interjections, appearing as an orange seller heckling from the audience, and never loses our adoration. This performance is comic perfection and beautifully sincere.
The cast work fantastically as a patchwork of tremendous characterisations. Sam Marks is fantastic as the dashingly smooth leading actor, Charles Hart. He prances and postures about the stage with reckless abandon and is a pleasure to watch. Also, in the King’s company is Edward Kynaston, ‘actor who plays the women’s parts’ played by Esh Alladi. Alladi is fabulously funny lamenting the introduction of female actors, with his waspish retorts and coquettish demonstrations of the craft of acting. For which he has trained. At fan school.
The seriousness of the craft of acting is sent up with great affection no more so than when Alladi’s Kynaston, perturbed by the size of his role, fabricates a ridiculously detailed backstory for his part.
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Mossie Smith is wonderful as the dresser Nancy, a brassy Cockney who has seen a bit of life. In addition to the company, Nicholas Bishop is charming as the affable, softly spoken yet inept playwright John Dryden. Joanne Howarth gives two superb character performances as both the excitable, tormented Portuguese Queen Catherine and as Nell’s old soak of a mother, Old Ma Gwynn who gives her daughter a piece of her mind about forgetting her roots while pocketing the king’s silverware.
Ben Righton gives an accomplished and nuanced performance as King Charles II, the man who believes there is little point in life if not to enjoy ourselves, hence his endorsement of the theatre. This love of living is not so much hedonistic as a celebration of life, having witnessed his father’s execution as a child. His infatuation with Nell Gwynn is played with such sensitivity as we witness their falling in love, that we take them both into our hearts.
It is impossible to leave this production feeling anything but delighted and wanting to dance a caper and sing a bawdy ditty into the market square. Don’t miss it!