Watching relatively new award-winning playwright Jessica Swale's period comedy at Edinburgh’s glorious King's Theatre makes one wonder why so few have touched on this territory before, what with the subject matter being obviously eminently so suitable for the theatre. This play only premiered a couple of years ago and was delighting London's West End audiences only last year. Such is its popularity that it is already enjoying a second run (it may well be become an evergreen in the theatrical repertoire) and is shortly to be filmed. We can only imagine the three successive actresses who've played the feisty Nell on stage are keeping their fingers crossed though for the current touring production the triumph belongs to Laura Pitt-Pulford.

Nell's story is indeed a very well known one: from selling oranges in Covent Garden to strolling actress to the favourite mistress of no less a man than King Charles II (few would have been able to resist his eventual offer of £400 though Nell Gwynn was already somewhat taken with the affable monarch’s ready wit).
Swale's endlessly amusing play catalogues Nell's story in a nutshell though of course fact and fiction are blurred for art’s sake. Still though, one suspects most of what we see is not altogether far from the truth. Nell herself was no mean wit and at the play's beginning dashing young actor Charles Hart (Sam Marks) is taken by Nell's witty heckling from the wings. He can sense that she is an obvious actress in the making and almost immediately takes her under his 'wing' as his pupil and introduces her to his company of players, led by theatre manager Thomas Killigrew (Clive Hayward) and dominated by flamboyant ‘diva’ Edward 'Ned' Kynaston (Esh Alladi) who all but steals the show with his hilarious camping up 'showing a woman how to play a woman' indeed! Introducing Nell into the company incurs the wrath of our leading player of female parts! It must be pointed out how revolutionary it was at the time (1670's) to introduce a woman as men still played the female parts. Despite initial tensions, the lovely Nell soon is the belle of the ball and the lover of Charles Hart, not for long though as the roving eye of the theatre-loving King (Ben Righton) soon falls onto Nell - much to the chagrin of Mr. Hart who becomes a trifle possessive of the effervescent Nell. Fortunately, he's a strolling player and the stage is an actor's mistress as Sir Henry Irving would have concurred.

Soon, Nell takes the position of the King’s favourite love interest, a fact that hugely displeases current mistress Barbara Villiers aka Lady Castlemaine (Pandora Clifford) while for the long-suffering Queen Catherine of Braganza (Joanne Howarth) Nell is just another thorn in the eye. The first act is a whirlwind of dance, songs, and witty (and also feminist) double entendres which gets even funnier (if that’s still possible) in the second act, in particular the scene in which Louise de Kerouille, King Charles’ French mistress, is openly mocked on stage by Nell singing a saucy French parody while dancers are holding an oversized replica of Kerouille’s ridiculous hat. Mossy Smith as Nell’s foul-mouthed dresser Nancy is a riot as is Joanne Howarth’s turn as Old Ma Gwynn who visits her now famous daughter in royal surroundings and promptly helps herself to some polished silver ware… before in a later scene, Nell’s sister Rose (Pepter Lunkuse) breaks the tragic news that Old Ma Gwynn fell into a pond while in a drunken stupor and drowned.

Jessica Swale cleverly incorporated some current topics into the dialogue, such as a conversation between the scheming Lord Arlington (veteran Michael Cochrane - here delivering a polished performance harkening back to another period) with the King and their idea of “leaving… but we can’t go to Europe”.
The play richly deserves the praise already meted out and no hype here. Plaudits all round for Nigel Hess's subtle period music played by musicians in a stage box on period instruments, Christopher Luscombe's direction, Hugh Durrant's inspired set and of course, those marvelous costumes. This lush production offers something for everyone! Last but by no means least, Laura Pitt-Pulford really is quite divine in the title role, and no mistake!

NELL GWYNN runs until Sat 22. April and you can keep up to date with the tour via: @ETTtweet#NellGwynn.

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