Susan Elkin | 23 Nov 2023 20:24pm
Jessica Swale’s 2016 play about Charles II’s most famous mistress, the self-declared “Protestant whore”, is almost as pretty and witty as Samuel Pepys wrote that Nell was. And Huntington Drama Club have evidently had a lot of fun with it.
Nell, famously, sold oranges (and other things) at the theatre, before she was talent-spotted. She became the best known of the first actresses to grace the stage in the 1660s when theatres re-opened and Restoration Comedy was born – with real women in the cast for the first time. Then Charles II fell for her charms and it becomes a real-life rags-to-riches story.
Georgie Bickerdike is outstanding as Nell. She smiles with translucent charm, flirts, pouts, sings beautifully and is very good at dropping double-entendres, almost literally tongue in cheek. Chris Turner makes a fine fist of the actor manager, Killigrew, with exaggerated actorly diction and Nat Spalding finds plenty of very funny petulance in Nat Spalding whose chance to play female parts is rapidly disappearing. Carl Perkins is reasonably convincing as Charles II given to pragmatically sitting on the fence because he doesn’t, given what happened to his father, want to antagonise anyone. It’s not his fault that I can never take anyone dressed at Charles II seriously because it immediately takes me and my imagination to Neverland and Captain Hook.
It’s a big company. Some of the roles which would originally have been doubled – are all cast singly, presumably to maximise opportunity. Thus, along with other reasonably decent acting there’s an enjoyable cameo form Naomi Ing as a furious Queen Catherine and another from Steph Hamer as Nell Gwynn’s bawdy mother. Most of the acting is acceptable but, despite skilful direction, standards are inevitably variable.
The best thing about Swale’s clever play and this production of it, is the send-up of theatre done badly – as comedy it works every time. It’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Noises Off, The Play that Goes Wrong, Our Country’s Good and many more. In Nell Gwynn, though it’s a bit more than that with some serious, quite topical, open-ended questions about who or what theatre is for and who should be doing it – with, of course, some knowing looks at the real 2023 audience lapping it up in Huntingdon’s Commemoration Hall.
The play comprises twenty five short scenes and I think the decision to mark each change with a black out is ill judged. It triggers audience applause and that makes the play feel clumsily choppy. Props and set are pretty simple. It would be perfectly possible for cast members to move from one scene to the next, maybe bringing items on and off as they go which would have made a much more seamless, less hiccough-y show.