The Restoration of Nell Gwyn – Review – York Theatre Royal
The Restoration of Nell Gwyn – Review
York Theatre Royal, October 2014
by Emily Lawley
Restoration Comedy is a style of drama that flourished in London after the Restoration in 1660. These plays typically have complicated plots marked by wit (more often than not of the bawdy kind), cynicism and licentiousness. The Restoration of Nell Gwyn, a new play by Steve Trafford, certainly ticks all those boxes. There is plenty of innuendo and crude jokes along with cynical observations of the Restoration period and the modern day.
It is a two-woman show that is made all the more intimate by the setting of York Theatre Royal’s wonderful Studio. It’s a small performance space that really makes you feel part of the action. It would be strange to watch such a show on a large stage. It is light on props and scenery, so the feeling that it creates in the Studio is paramount to the enjoyment of the performance.
The play is based on the life of one of the Restoration period’s most famous actresses, Nell Gwyn. Elizabeth Mansfield takes the title role. Angela Curran, takes the role of her semi-fictional maid Margery. Both performances are wonderful. Mansfield captures Nell’s theatrical side and high emotions very well. She veers between laughter and impersonations to hysterical crying from one minute to the next. Curran’s level-headed Margery remains in control of Nell and the play itself throughout.
The play opens with Margery setting the scene of this time in Nell’s life. This is the period in history where her lover Charles II is lying in his deathbed. Her future therefore is very uncertain. She has risen from the slums in London to the top ranks of society. Nell has found her way into Charles’ bedchamber due to her huge success as an actress.
But a change in rule by his strict brother could signal a very bitter end for Nell. The bawdy wit starts as soon as the play does. Margery’s prologue is full of innuendo and this certainly sets the tone for the rest of the evening. The play capitalises on the advantages of such an intimate setting by getting the audience into the action with funny asides from the off. These include Margery obviously switching the fake candles on at the bottom instead of lighting them.
Overshadowing the huge differences between the two women is their obvious affection for one another and their reliance on each other. They have bond over their struggle for survival. Margery is saved by Nell after being found in the gutter and Nell fears that her new-found wealth and quality of life could disappear once Charles II dies. They each choose a very different way to make their way through an often unforgiving Restoration London. Margery by being chaste and serving someone with good social standing. Nell by giving into temptation and selling herself to reach lofty heights.
I find myself completely engrossed in the play as it delves into the complicated history of the time. The beautifully-written monologues are compelling. Margery’s description of the impact of the plague on her family is moving, especially as it is in stark contrast to Nell’s experience of being transported away from disease-ridden London to Oxford with the rest of the Royal Players. The complicated story is punctuated with stunning Baroque songs, using music by Henry Purcell. They are faultlessly performed by Mansfield. Her singing is mesmerising. The pace of the play is just right. Likewise the balance of serious scenes with almost ridiculous ones.
The second half of the play centres on Nell trying to sneak her way in to see King Charles II. She has been told that all women are banned from his room. This is where we see the payoff of Nell’s famous talents of portraying male parts in Restoration plays. She decides to try and trick them into thinking she is a French aristocrat! The range of different accents and parts that Mansfield portrays is impressive and very true to Nell’s acting ability.
The play comes to a head in the closing scene with some home truths being delivered to Nell by Margery. They nearly end their friendship. In the final song Nell implores us to ‘remember her’ despite the huge change London and England is about to experience now Charles II is dead. It is a very poignant end to a play full of highs and lows. The final scenes leave you thinking about the similarities between the difficulties faced by people then and the ones that face us now.
If this is your first experience of a Restoration era-inspired play it is a great one to start with. Trafford has made it very accessible and Mansfield and Curran’s performances are truly compelling.
images: Anthony Robling