Review: Nell Gwynn at The Annex Theatre

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With a simple set design highlighting the complexity of the Jessica Swale's characters, Theatre Group's newcomers are given a spectacularly funny and emotional introduction.

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Jessica Swale’s play, exploring the life of one of the first women on the stage in the 17th century, may be an unexpected choice for a freshers production, but the ambition of Emma Frazzitta (Director), Naomi Dixon (Assistant Director), James Chambers (Assistant Director and Producer), and Ellie Joyce (Producer) – and the trust they have placed in Theatre Group’s new faces – has paid off, making for a spectacular show of politics, theatre, love, death, and sexual innuendos.

Nell Gwynn (Heather Phelps), a former prostitute, is discovered by Charles Hart (Fred Thornton) as an orange seller, defending herself from hecklers during a performance. Hart sees her gift for wit, and trains her to be an actress, becoming her lover in the process. But when King Charles II (Harry Seager) attends one of her performances, he becomes enamoured with her, and wants her to be his mistress. The play follows Nell from the King’s Theatre to his court, from her family home in Cheapside to a family of her own, as she falls in love and pursues her acting career while trying to stay true to her family and identity.

Alongside this, Nell Gwynn is a play about plays, letting us into the writing process, chaotic rehearsals, and fumbling performances of the King’s Theatre. Topically, as the troupe prepare to bring their first actress to the stage, they examine the failures of the one-dimensional, stereotypical female characters that had been allowed when men played them. There’s an especially wonderful scene as Nell, her sister Rose (Elinor Austin), and Nancy (Sarah Le Besque) train the playwright John Dryden (Rory Dick) to write a realistic female character for Nell to play which, like everything in this performance, is presented with a joyful sense of humour that doesn’t undermine the importance of the message.

Suitably, each character is complex, and portrayed in a complex manner; while Swale’s play is full of eye-watering humour – sexual innuendo, dirty ditties, and the odd bit of perfectly timed slapstick humour – this production’s directing and producing team have not failed to notice that it is carried by its characters. There is no radical new interpretation presented this time round. Instead, there’s a staunch faithfulness to presenting these characters in all of their glory, and while the set is simple – chairs and tables, with the occasional costume chest or clay bust, moved on and off in the slightly clumsy scene breaks – this only allows the characters room to breathe, and the strength of their personalities and portrayals fills the stage, and in fact the whole room, with ease.

The play opens with young Ned (Tom Usher) pushed, dazed, to the stage, to deliver a shaky monologue to us, the audience of a play within a play. Hecklers shout from among us, which immediately brings us closer to the action, and allows us to be more comfortable with vocal reactions – many dramatic lines got an audible gasp, for example, and the room regularly echoed with laughter. When Nell comes to the stage however, to retrieve a thrown orange, her mischievous backchat and self-assuredness immediately cements her as the glowing heart of the production. She has a powerful wit and sense of self-worth, which helps her navigate both the world of the theatre and, later, the court of King Charles II. In this production, she is superbly embodied by Heather Phelps, charismatically comfortable on the stage, especially impressive as a newcomer, with a simply magnetic presence, as well as proving to be a surprising singing talent.  ‘Juliet’, as she says, may be ‘a noodle’, but Phelps’ Nell is a powerhouse, as she presents Nell in all her facets; mischievous, self-assured, vulnerable, and broken-hearted, with an equally dazzling shine.

In the King’s Company, Fred Thornton’s Charles Hart is fantastically pompous as the melodramatic star actor, but  he also shows his more human, vulnerable side in his devotion to Nell. Rory Dick is a perfect bumbling John Dryden, shyly shuffling about the stage in the midst of writer’s block, and Juan Mairal is admirable as the infinitely-frustrated Thomas Killigrew. Jake Collyer’s Edward Kynaston is fantastic as the classic stage diva, especially when his character is playing a female part in one of the many plays within the play. The comic relief couple of Ned and Nancy often steal the show, bickering and fighting in the background, with Nancy especially bringing the audience (and sometimes even her fellow cast members) almost to tears with a well-timed curse, cackle, or attempt to lick the King’s clothes. Whenever the two are on stage, it’s difficult to drag your eyes away from them, so this can take away from some of the more serious scenes that take place around them, but they’re so joyfully, childishly funny that you don’t really mind.

As we move into the king’s court, Seager’s King Charles II is perhaps easily overlooked in the first act, but only for the effortlessness of his performance. In the second act, however, he comes into his own, especially in his outburst to Lord Arlington (Elliot Morris). From then on, in his embodiment of the King divided between political duties and love, he is painfully tumultuous, and in scenes between him and Nell, they are mesmerizing – they take up such a small space of the stage, and yet fill the room. Similarly, Morris’ Lord Arlington is a subtle presence throughout the first act – albeit with a noticeably perfect sense of comic timing – but transforms into a truly threatening presence in the second act. Eleanor Bogle, in her brief appearance as Queen Catherine, is impressive in her ability to switch from shaking with fury to sincere heartbreak in moments, and Claudia Shaw majestically embodies the smug spirit of the King’s prospective French mistress, Louise De Keroualle, swanning about the stage with a manipulative smirk and grand sense of entitlement. Millie Pike, too, is notable for her brilliantly subtle portrayal of the King’s mistress, Barbara Castlemaine, with an eerily calm control of herself and her surroundings, a rich, hypnotic voice, and a constant glint of cunning in her eyes. Lucy Gallimore and Elinor Austin complete the named cast as Old Ma and Rose Gwynn respectively, both delivering understated but vital performances. The ensemble of Zoe Irwin, Chrystine Ashiagbor, and Ed Patience are also valuable additions, as hecklers or as a Greek chorus of singing narrators.

In their production of Nell Gwynn, Theatre Group showcase the broad range of talent of their newcomers, from singing to slapstick comedy to subtle, naturalistic performances of love and loss, allowing this production to explore many complex themes with subtlety, genuine emotion, and a wonderful wit.

Theatre Group’s Nell Gwynn will be performed at 7:30 28 November – 1 December at the Annex Theatre. Ticket are available here.

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12-year-old possessive lioness and shiny goddess of all things nerdy. I am usually great and sometimes Deputy Edit. I support everyone and like everything @faithfulpadfoot. If you speak ill of musicals I may or may not bite thee.

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