THE lights go up, at the King’s in Edinburgh, on a set by Hugh Durrant that looks as if it might have been made for this gorgeous Edwardian theatre; a glowing red-and-gold half-circle of theatrical arches and boxes that merges seamlessly into the curves of the King’s auditorium, reminding us of the centuries of history that led to this vision of how a theatre should look. And there, on the edge of the stage, sits Nell Gwynn the russet-haired orange-seller, thoroughly at home in a theatre where ushers with trays of interval ice-cream still take up position in the same aisle, and where pantomime stars regularly venture into the audience, as if the famous “fourth wall” had never existed.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh ***
Nell’s life is about to undergo a decisive change, though; for the year is 1667, and the new monarch, King Charles II, has decreed that for the first time in England, women will be allowed to appear on stage. Charles Hart, a leading actor at Nell’s theatre, spots her potential as a performer; and in no time, the girl who was once a Cheapside prostitute is flaunting her wit, beauty, and sheer performing chutzpah on one of the nation’s leading stages, and catching the eye of a monarch who was famous throughout his life for amorous adventures with beautiful and strong-minded women, from Nell herself to his famously ambitious mistress-in-chief, Barbara Villiers.
It’s this moment of transition – both in Nell’s personal story and in the life of English theatre – that Jessica Swale seeks to capture in her 2014 play-with-songs, Nell Gwynn; and if the final result is often more like a well-written costume romance than a hard-hitting piece of social history, Christopher Luscombe’s production still makes a charming and exceptionally good-looking show, illuminated by a funny, raunchy, yet gently nuanced performance from the lovely Laura Pitt-Pulford as Nell, and an outstanding display of wit and charm from Ben Righton as the King.
Mainly set on stage at the theatre, the play features many self-consciously comic performance and rehearsal sequences, punctuated by memorably rude and joyous songs featuring a four-piece live band, and by a riotously camp comedy turn from Esh Alladi as Edward Kynaston, the male actor who was the company’s leading lady, until Nell replaced him. And if Nell’s life is finally framed here as a remarkable enduring love-story between king and commoner, it’s still full of an intelligent awareness of just how harshly 17th century society could bear down on women who flouted conventional morality, if they were ever unlucky enough to lose the protection of the powerful men who could make or break their lives, from one moment to the next.
Final performances today