Nell Gwynn changed my opinion about King Charles II. Before seeing Three Sisters Theatre Company’s production, I’d dismissed the 17th century British monarch as a foppish hedonist who was a good argument for republicanism. However, in Jessica Swale’s play he’s portrayed in a somewhat more sympathetic light—lonely and terrified of being brutally executed as his father, Charles I, was. Phillip Merriman is masterful as Charles.
But the play is called Nell Gwynn not King Charles. We first meet Nell (the splendid Robin Guy) as she wanders amongst the audience, selling oranges for sixpence, as she did in the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1660. The theatre had been founded by King Charles; its acting company were called the King’s Company. Nell’s background is unsavoury—her alcoholic mother, Ma Gwynn (Cindy Beaton), runs a brothel where her sister Rose (Shawna Pasini) and she had whored. But she’s a plucky cheerful lass with a sharp tongue. Samuel Pepys called her “pretty witty Nell”.
The King’s Company’s lead actor, Charles Hart (played by Bryan Morris) spots her talent and coaches her in theatrics. He also becomes her lover. Soon after, King Charles decreed that it was now legal for women to be actresses. So Hart convinces the company’s manager, Thomas Killigrew (played by Brie Barker) to hire Nell. The resident playwright, John Dryden (the multi-talented David Whiteley) is tickled by the challenge of writing roles for a real woman (“If you’re writing for real women, they won’t have to be so feminine!”). The company’s costumer Nancy (played with panache by Beaton) is pleased to have another woman on board. Actor Ned Spiggett (goofily played by Nicholas Dave Amott) is excited about the opportunities to see some female cleavage. But Edward Kynaston (J.T. Morris, who is absolutely brilliant), who had played the female parts up until then, is dead set against employing Nell. He protests, “What, pray, does she have that I don’t?” Nancy shoots back, “Tits!”
A few days later, it’s time for Nell’s first appearance on the Drury Lane stage. She’s quaking in her dressing room, wailing “I think I’m going to be sick!” The advice she’s given? “Aim at the groundlings!” She stumbles through her debut, avoiding disaster when her soon-to-be-famous wit comes to the fore.
King Charles is in the audience and takes an immediate shine to her. He thinks—incorrectly—that Nell Gwynn represents his epitome of theatre: “joy, gaiety and a complete absence of complicated women.” But although Nell is a warm cheerful girl, she’s got a mind of her own—almost a protofeminist one—and does not become the King’s latest mistress. At least not immediately.
Barbara Castlemaine (Bronwyn Steinberg) is Charles’s current mistress, but he’s tiring of her. Later, Steinberg plays his new elegant French mistress, Louise de Kéroualle, who is installed at the English court by the slimy Lord Arlington (a fine performance by Amott). But Nell ultimately triumphs over both of her rivals, using subterfuge (I won’t tell you what she bakes into some tea cakes) and finally because Charles genuinely loves her and she loves him.
If you’ve been keeping count of all the actors I’ve named in this review, you’ve deduced that there’s a sizeable cast on stage—10 in all. Between them, they play 21 (!) characters. As if this isn’t enough, four of the actors—Whiteley, Amott, Barker and Merriman—play musical instruments on stage, and have collaborated with Guy in composing original music for the production. The entire cast sing, most of them quite well. Very impressive! And I won’t spoil it for you, but what Amott plays on the harpsichord in Act 2 is laugh-out-loud funny.
Nell Gwynn won the 2016 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. I can see why—Swale’s script often sparkles. Nell says, “The French have arrived. They’re all driving on the wrong side of the cobbles. It’s mayhem!” Dryden, the quintessential author, whines that, “It’s almost done! I just haven’t written the words yet.” My favourite exchange: when Charles arrives unexpectedly backstage and Killigrew exclaims “Oh God!”, Charles says, “Well, King, actually—one rung down.” Swale and Crowder also deliver the funniest multiple suicide scene I’ve ever seen on stage.
Nell Gwynn is playing at The Gladstone Theatre until June 8. The performance starts at 7:30pm. Information and tickets are available online at and at The Gladstone’s box office. Some language is ribald, so the play may not be suitable for pre-teens (though the young fellow sitting behind us enjoyed himself).