Tag Archives: Ben Righton

Nell Gwynn
reviewed in Cambridge on 21 March

A historical play – just like a historical novel – is not necessarily a straightforward documentary. The historian has to stick to the known facts, and be prepared to answer for any assumptions to his or her peers. The novelist is controlled by a far looser rein, and the dramatist is given even greater licence.

So Jessica Swale’s version of the life of arguably the most famous actress of the 17th century, Nell Gwynn, never lets the (perilously few) known facts get in the way of a thoroughly theatrical romp. It makes for an enagaging evening’s entertainment, augmented in Christopher Luscombe’s English Touring Theatre production by the Globe Theatre-style set and costume designs of Hugh Durrant and by Nigel Hess’ pastiche score.

This is very well performed by both cast and instrumentalists Emily Banes, Sharon Lindo, Arngeir Hauksson and Nicholas Perry. Charlotte Broom is the choreographer, keeping the stage a-swirl with stamps and turns. There are a number of entrances from the auditorium with the occasional circle and box level interjection; I suspect these work better in playhouse-type theatres than in a less flexible one such as the Cambridge Arts.

Laura Pitt-Pulford’s Nell is a delight, giving the back-street orange-seller turned actress and then king’s mistress real personality as her enthusiasms bubble with scant regard for the status of those at whom she aims them. Her two Charles are Ben Righton as Charles II and Sam Marks as leading-man Charles Hart. Frantically striving to keep everything (and everyone) on the right path are Michael Cochrane as Lord Arlington and Clive Heyward as King’s Company manager Killigrew.

The human-being behind the stereotype is particularly apparent in some of Righton’s exchanges with Pitt-Pulford, in Esh Alladi’s portrait of the rapidly becoming redundant player of women’s parts Edward Kynaston and in the short sequence when Joanne Howarth’s flamboyantly strident Catherine of Braganza suddenly kneels to the king and hushes the house with her echo of Catherine of Aragon’s Blackfriars plea to Henry VIII.

This is history with its own validity, because in two hours has necessarily to concentrate and condense both characters and action while keeping the audience attentive from first to last, simply and basically by entertaining it. You do go away at the end with a certain spring in your step – and that’s probably as good an accolade as any.

Four and a half-star rating.

Nell Gwynn continues at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 March with matinées on 23 and 25 March.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2017

King Charles III

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 19 October)

Original verse dramas are thin on the ground when it comes to the 20th and 21st century. The iambic pentameter doesn’t necessarily echo contemporary speech fashions, though Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not For Burning managed it successfully. Now Mike Bartlett’s “future history” play King Charles III joins the select band.

This production by Rupert Goold is currently on a national tour en route to Broadway. It began life at London’s Almeida Theatre with a different cast and has been revised and updated during its 18-month life. The set by Tom Scutt – a semi-circle of brick walls bisected horizontally by a Byzantine-style frieze of royal forebears – might serve equally well for one of Shakespeare’s history plays. Elements of the plot reinforce this.

Bartlett postulates the accession to the British throne of the present Prince of Wales. There is an early clash with convention, as the new king (Robert Powell) insists on having weekly meetings not just with his dour Welsh Prime Minister Evans (Tim Treloar) but with the infinitely more pliable Leader of the Opposition Stevens (Giles Taylor).

Meanwhile his younger son Harry (Richard Glaves) is churning up the local clubs and bars, in the course of which he meets Jess (Lucy Phelps). His heir William (Ben Righton) is concerned for the future of the monarchy and comes over as increasingly dominated by his wife Kate (Jennifer Bryden), who has more than a slight whiff of Lady Macbeth in her attitude to her husband.

A key factor in Goold’s production is the vocal score by Joceyn Pook, using texts from the Catholic liturgy (“Agnus Dei and “Dies irae”) to haunting effect. There’s an actual ghost as well – Diana (Beatrice Walker), whose message (like so many from supernatural sources) is ambiguous. This is a Delphic oracle definitely not to be trusted.

Interestingly, it is Taylor and Bryden who sound most at home with the blank verse format. Powell’s performance gives us a man of principles, capable of exercising his royal perogative and of listening – but not perhaps heeding. As the next generation takes over, Charles grows in stature to become a true tragic hero (more Shakespearean echoes).

Comedy? yes, certainly as the audience response demonstrates. Tragedy? possibly, if you can define that as a man who brings about his own destruction. Reality? who knows?

King Charles III runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 24 October. It can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 14 and 19 March 2016.

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Filed under Plays, Reviews 2015