Nell Gwynn | Castle Hill Players

Image by Chris Lundie

Nell Gwynn is a somewhat infamous name in British theatre history for her risqué lifestyle and connections with King Charles II. Representing the rags-to-riches spirit of Restoration England, Nell had a revolutionising impact on the arts as recognised in this biographical production full of humour and joy for the art of acting.

For some historical context, when England’s time as the English Commonwealth ended with the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658, the monarchy was restored and King Charles II (Paul Sztelma) returned to his position, where he famously reinstated the taverns and theatres closed by Cromwell and allowed women to perform on stage. King Charles II’s dramatic lifestyle, support of the arts, and many mistresses earned him the nickname “the Merry Monarch”. Nell Gwynn (Tiffany Hoy), an actress from Drury Lane Theatre, was one of his most memorable mistresses and it’s on her that Jessica Swale’s scrip focuses.

The action opens on the beginning of another play with Ned (Dan Byron) lacklustrely reciting a prologue that piques orange seller Nell’s attention. Another actor Charles (Dan Ferris) challenges Nell to walk the boards herself and, seeing her natural talent, endeavours to enmesh her in the company as their first female performer. It’s in this theatre that Nell’s remarkable life begins when she catches the King’s eye, negotiates her keeping rates, and eventually returns to the theatrical space after the King’s death.

Director Jennifer Willison recreates the bawdy and loud atmosphere of the 17th century theatre with spectators and eavesdroppers peppering the background of every scene. The company are a charming mix of impassioned artists including a put-out Edward (Richard Littlehales) displaced from his comfortable role as Desdemona, Thomas Killigrew (Murray Fane) who struggles to balance artistic merit and profit, troubled playwright John Dryden (Jason Spindlow) who is endlessly funny is his attempts to appropriate recognisable tales, and then the seamstress extraordinaire Nancy (Marilyn Parsons) who does her bit with very little thanks. In Whitehall Palace, the social and international politics overlap for much gossip and intrigue with Lord Arlington (Stephen Snars) and Lady Castlemaine (Madeleine Dart) conspiring unsuccessfully behind the King’s back and the occasional inappropriate visit from Nell’s sister Rose (Kimberlea Smith).

Hoy as the lead has the audience in the palm of her hand with her quick wit and tactical comic timing. Her performance consists of diverse relationship dynamics from the misunderstood power imbalance with Charles Hart to the fiery banter of her affair with King Charles II. Even throughout a long history play, Hoy remains cheerful and easy to watch from her gutter days to her final bow.

Set design from Maureen Cartledge is elaborate and creative, splitting the space into the marble checkered floors of the palace with lurking pages and priceless artworks on one side, and the roughly worn floor boards of the playhouse strewn with idle actors and their various costumes on the other. The depth of the space with different levels works well with Casey Moon-Watton’s lighting design to keep the visuals interesting with shifting focuses. Of particular pleasure was the live musical performers (Geoff Jones, George Trippis, Murray Fane) who serenaded the audience beforehand and then provided the background music with Geoff Jones’s compositions throughout the production. The whole design team from Jan Mahoney’s period choreography to Anthea Brown’s extensive costuming authentically captured the atmosphere of the 17th century for their contemporary audience.

So much of Nell Gwynn’s story is about how little of the theatrical spirit has changed in the last four hundred years where people still come together to make theatre for the love of it. In the tight-knit community of the Castle Hill Players, this celebration of the original stage starlet seems a fitting final production for 2019.

Nell Gwynn is running at the Pavilion Theatre from November 15th – December 7th

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