King’s Theatre, Edinburgh – until 22 April 2017
Guest reviewer: Martin Gray
The most famous mistress of Charles II rules at the King’s Theatre this week, with the English Touring Theatre’s production of Nell Gwynn. A musical about Nell Gwynn, when ‘orange’ is notoriously the most difficult word with which to rhyme? Sounds a tough prospect. As it happens, this isn’t strictly a musical, it’s a comedy with music. It’s also a drama with music.
Let’s be honest, it’s tough to categorise Jessica Swale’s play other than to say it’s a fantastic entertainment. It impresses even before it begins, as audiences are met with a gorgeous impression of a 17th-century theatre, and musicians above it begin to play. Actors appear, to be coached by their manager, and at the front of the stage, basket of fruit before her, is young Nell Gwynn, house orange hawker and teenage wit.
Seeing something in her – and perhaps imagining something else – one of the King’s Players, Charles Hart, coaches her to join the company. He teaches her the stock gestures and attitudes; terror, for instance, means ‘nostrils flared temples raised’. She’s a hit with fellow players, audiences and patron Charles II, and is eventually installed at the Royal palace as his favourite mistress.
Swale takes us to the death of the king and beyond, alternating court politics with the fortunes of the theatre, the two occasionally overlapping – a scene in which jealous Nell mocks Charles latest mistress, a French import, with a ‘ditty’ involving a giant chapeau, is a delight. The other big song and dance number, the cheeky, I Can Dance and I Can Sing, is bonkers catchy, delivered with real charm by Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell.
Pitt-Pulford’s performance is big enough to fill the stage, but not so big as to be over the top, meaning Nell, famed for her juicy oranges, never becomes a Carry On-style figure of fun. She’s a gutsy, lusty lover of life, a truth teller, there for everyone except her mother, a brothel keeper played by Joanne Howarth.
Mossie Smith, Phillipa Flynn, Jack Helsby, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Leon Stewart, Thea Collings and Ben Righton Pic: Tristram Kenton
Howarth is sublime in a scene which demonstrates how estranged mother and daughter have become (‘You ain’t changed my girl, you’re just a more expensive whore’), and unrecognisable as the same woman cameoing as Charles’ unloved queen, Catherine.
King Charles is played by Ben Righton, whose height, demeanour and costumes recall King’s favourite Grant Stott; happily, his commanding performance soon sets us right… I’d love to see the two men share a scene, though. Oh yes I would.
Like Howarth, Righton gets to show how he can go from comedy to high drama in a hare’s breadth, when his declaration of love for Nell segues effortlessly into his dissolving Parliament, with the aid of a sharp lighting design. He’s also gifted the best comic moment of the night, a topical joke I won’t spoil, in a series of exchanges with Michael Cochrane’s Lord Arlington.
The ladies and gentlemen of the King’s Company are hilariously hammy, from Esh Alladi as Edward Kynaston, who doesn’t half love his lady parts, to Clive Hayward as long-suffering manager Thomas Killigrew. Nicholas Bishop is terrifically dry as house playwright John Dryden, who seems unable to stop ‘homaging’ Shakespeare, Mossie Smith is a hoot as dresser Nancy and George Jennings adorably puppyish as ‘actor in training’ Ned.
Sam Marks has terrific chemistry with Pitt-Pulford and displays a quiet, touching dignity as he realises he can’t compete with a king for Nell’s affections. Pandora Clifford does double duty as two mistresses, including Gallic nightmare Louise de Kerouaille, reeling off French dialogue to hilarious effect… audience members with better language skills than myself liked her even more. And Pepter Lunkuse adds welcome steel as Nell’s older sister, Rose.
The music, composed by Nigel Hess, is really rather special, as played by Emily Baines – also musical director – Arngeir Hauksson, Sharon Lindo and Nicholas Perry. We get woodwinds, violins… there’s even a hurdy-gurdy in there. It’s all very authentic and a treat for the ears.
Director Christopher Luscombe has put together a splendidly entertaining show, unlike anything seen in Edinburgh for a long while. Nell Gwynn is pure win.