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.