Nell Gwynn

Date 4th December 2021
Society The Green Room Theatre, Wilmslow
Venue Wilmslow Green Room Theatre
Type of Production Play
Director Celia Bonner & Mike Rogerson
Written By Jessica Swale


Author: Stephanie Niland (District 1 Drama Rep)

Having been familiar with the historical story of Nell Gwynn, I wondered if we were in for a formal period drama, but on arriving at the lovely Green Room Theatre in Wilmslow, I soon realised this was not to be the case. There was an atmosphere of merry informality as we were greeted by cast members who wandered through the building and cajoled us into our seats. The play begins in a jovial manner and the cast addresses the audience in candid conversations and this continues sporadically throughout, discussing theatrical conventions and throwing out sharp one liners like confetti.

It was immediately evident that though the play is set during the reign of King Charles II, the dialogue is more twenty-first century than seventeenth, and this renders the script entirely accessible.  The play follows the story of a young woman, Nell Gwynn, who must steer and negotiate her way through the male-dominated world of the theatre as she works her way up from orange-seller to leading London actress. As she clambers up the theatrical ladder, Nell’s charm and witty magnetism, attracts the attention of the King and the two commence a passionate affair.

The direction was wonderful and it is clear that Celia Bonner and Mike Rogerson wanted to celebrate the lively and playful nature of Restoration era theatre, (Swale’s script uses the concept of the play-within-a-play) and this is honoured and well thought out, as were the backstage antics and the ceremonial manner of the set changes gave a nod to the formal royal court. The script tickles the surface of the political and religious upheaval of the era but these two are defined well through the direction and portrayals. David Reynolds’ gravitas in his performance of Lord Arlington emphasises these themes in his fantastic scenes that juxtapose well with the theatre chaos. The other message of female advancement was also highlighted brilliantly and Lorna Kong’s performance of the title character, Nell, held this theme tightly throughout. She manages to combine so many elements of a strong female into her Nell. She comes across as shrewd, intelligent, attractive, coy and brave. Well done on an entirely enchanting, “knotty and tangly” performance. The cast as a whole, was extremely strong. The group dynamics, whether it be in the scenes with petty playhouse squabbles or the haughty confrontations between Nell and Lord Arlington or Charles’ other love interest Lady Castlemaine were fabulous. Gemma Duncan’s controlled and scheming Castlemaine was a joy to witness.

The script is full of eccentric characters with plenty of opportunity for character development, which every actor grasped with both hands. It would be hard to mention everybody- so to remark briefly on a couple more to add to the mentioned above...

Graham Simmonds accentuated the interesting balance in Edward Kynaston by his enthusiasm or begrudging engagement with whatever part he has to take on. His flounces and butting of horns with Nell were very entertaining. Ted Walker is charisma personified as Charles Hart, although he portrays the layers of the complicated creative when he reveals his hurt regarding Nell, a commanding and entertaining performance- and for such a big character, within the group scenes, there was a generosity in the performance that highlighted Walker’s respect for ensemble acting. Lovely comic and important performances by Belinda Coghlan as Nancy and Sonia Dykstra as Ma Gwynn who made their mark with authority of stage. Mel Beswick as Rose Gwynn was captivating and gave a crucial sense of the “real world” that Nell was apt to forget whilst gallivanting around royal palaces or treading the boards. I can’t wait to see more of this talented actress. King Charles II played by Steve Berrington was a curious characterisation, and although atypical and unexpected, was endearing, funny and at the appropriate times, quite tragic and troubled. Well done.

This play was thoroughly enjoyed by the audience; it engaged us from the off with its love- letter to theatre element along with the witty feminism aspect and the wonderful bawdy musical numbers peppered throughout. So much did the story beguile us that we didn’t notice the lengthy running time – at no point did it drag – and we left humming the catchy tunes and discussing the fabulous story telling evident in this warm, humorous and ebullient production.