As a spectacle, ETT‘s Nell Gwynn at the King’s Theatre is sumptuous. Sixteen actors, four musicians, and designer Hugh Durrant’s gloriously silken-swathed set occupy our attention lavishly for two hours, and those two hours seem short. The cast jest, they dance, they cavort, and they sing, all the while presenting a condensed version of the rags-to-royalty tale of the original – if slightly bawdy – Cinderella. It’s jolly good fun for the most part, but it is not without its flaws.
We are in 1660s London. Charles II has returned from exile, and put women on the stage. A few of these newfangled actresses catch his eye, but none holds it quite like Nell, the saucy orange-seller-turned-actress. The play loosely follows their loves and travails in the years between the Restoration and the King’s death, in 1685. Allowing for the fact, as playwright Jessica Swale openly does in the programme notes, that the play is in no way intended to be a work of historical record (the events of the play, which in real life spanned two decades, are here often cleverly condensed to a period of about 24 months), it is not lack of consistency in this regard which irks, so much as the dizzying juxtaposition of overlaboured genres and too many characters to keep track of.
Granted, the audience is onside from the first giggle, mere seconds in, when George Jennings‘ likeable young Ned stands centre-stage and makes a pickle of his Prologue. Deliberately evocative of the wit for which the Restoration period – and Nell herself – are renowned, this opening word-play is kin to many sharp one-liners scattered throughout Jessica Swale‘s Olivier Award-winning play. While some are nothing short of brilliant, they are counterbalanced by numerous more leaden gags, predicted before they’re uttered, and verging on – or well beyond – the trite.
The staging, helmed by director Christopher Luscombe, is similarly changeable. At times it is breathtakingly clever, its apparent simplicity belying its brilliance, with period-inspired music adding style and dimension to the scene. Until, that is, said scene takes a turn for the melodramatic, or prioritises forgettable gags and foot-stomping jigs over the true and very real wit of the playwright. Nell (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and the King (Ben Righton) work hard with what they are given, and both are allowed brief moments of reflection, tantalising us with some meaty internal drama, before some metaphorical switch is flipped, and they turn back into less-satisfying caricatures with no explicit character motivation. Nell drifts (albeit at a heady pace) through the play like a pretty thistledown without aim, buffeted about by the men she meets, and, while she plays opportunities to her advantage, it is difficult to see what is *so* unique about this sassy wench, as to attract a king. It is frustrating because Swale clearly knows and loves her subjects, but it is as though she is afraid to venture too deep inside their heads. While we are occasionally granted glimmers of exposition, usually provided by secondary characters, most of the drama is external, and we never feel like we truly see these people’s souls. This is not helped by the sheer size of the cast, most of whom are kept deliberately at arms’ length, serving quite consciously as devices or cameos, some verging on the farcical, while others are simply superfluous.
Nell Gwynn is an opulent, heady and enjoyable ode to the theatre’s own history, and well-recommended as an evening out. Sadly, though, despite the spectacle and the passion its creators clearly hold for their subject, it is missing an inherent dramatic spark which could lift it to another level. This is all the more frustrating for the occasional flashes of brilliance that tease us with the play it might have been.