I was rubbish at woodwork at school, so I want to start by congratulating the set design and build team. It would be easy to underestimate the time, effort, ingenuity and expense involved in setting up an outdoor theatre which might properly be called a spectacle. I take my hat off to those who truly understand what's meant by 'measure twice, cut once', a maxim my long-suffering woodwork master tried unsuccessfully to make me grasp. It was imposing and impressive, looked amazing, had turrets, windows and stairs, and supported a dozen adults all dancing at the same time. If I'd built it, it would have looked like one of Homer Simpson's bird-houses, but it looked like a castle, so I was impressed from the get-go.
The set was a tough act to follow, but if it made the cast nervous they hid it well. The first exchanges, conducted from within the audience, were beautifully paced, and you just knew that the anonymous orange-seller was someone destined for greatness by the way she cut the guy to bits with her wit.
That orange-seller turned out to be Amy De Roche, playing the eponymous Nell of the title, and what a stunning job she did. The part called for someone to portray a supremely gifted actor who could sing and dance and act an audience to sobs of laughter or anguish – quite daunting. But Ms De Roche did it superbly, supported by thirteen others who obviously were having a great time.
A credit was given in the programme to the Song Composer, Nigel Hess, and deservedly so. One dreads hearing home-made songs in any theatre, but the numbers we heard that night were polished, professional and very pleasing, sounding at the same moment as if they belonged in the 17th century and the 21st. The cast delivered them with glee and gusto (and slick choreography thanks to Roz Hall).
The script is by Jessica Swale, and to my mind she did a wonderful job of spanning the centuries, giving the players dialogue that echoed the times without being at all artificial, and a sort of 'modern' freshness without any modernisms. This, combined with a springing pace of delivery made for a performance that never once dragged or jarred or seemed anything but satisfyingly, unselfconsciously joyful. Whether hilarious or introspective, furious or philosophical, every moment was convincing, moving, funny and delightful.
The supporting cast were, as always with Guildburys, excellent, but special mention must be made of Eddie Woolrich, delivering a hilarious tour-de-force as the bewildered relic of a men-only stage, watching his treasured fake bosom getting completely outplayed. Also Jason Orbaum as King Charles. I was very grateful to Ms Swale for steering clear of the men-are-gormless-lumps cliché, and giving the King such a human voice, and to Mr Orbaum for delivering it so subtly and so well.
Special mention also must go to the language coaches, Gilly Fick (French) and Felipe Eusebio (Portuguese). It's always disappointing when a player talking foreign is too obviously from around here, but there was none of that in the tirades delivered by Jemma Jessup and Ally Murphy, storming their continental outrage in totally convincing style.
It would become tedious if I listed each player (superb mugging, Michael Thonger) – but my heartfelt congratulations go to all of them for a truly entertaining evening – you know who you are, and you were all excellent.
Cast and crew will be delivering this treat again this month from the 27th to the 29th at Haslemere Museum Gardens, so if you missed it, it's not too late – book through the Guildburys website. You won't be sorry.