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posted/updated: 13 Feb 2020 -
Nell Gwynn
Jessica Swale
society/company: Banbury Cross Players (directory)
performance date: 12 Feb 2020
venue: The Mill Arts Centre, Spiceball Pk Road, Banbury, OX16 5QE OX16 5QE
reviewer/s: Alex Wood (Sardines review)

Photos: Mike Watling

There is much to be said in favour of Nell Gwynn; a modern take on the story of the prostitute who becomes an orange seller at the prestigious King's Theatre in London where her lively personality, wit and talent to amuse leads to her move from the pit to the stage. Spotted by King Charles II, she becomes a mistress to a troubled monarch, who gives her two sons and enough wealth to live out her days in great comfort.

Written in the 21st Century the play gives some intriguing insights into Restoration England and its theatre and along the way there is a lot of clever, modern humour and some rather nice songs.

That said, it's interesting that the play has never had a long professional run - the one in the West End only had around 100 performances in spite of the presence of Gemma Arterton in the leading role. My guess would be that the play has had limited success because it tries to cast Nell Gwynn as a modern feminist heroine rather than a surprisingly clever and probably cunning young woman who knew exactly how to get what she wants – which would have worked better.

This was a challenging show for Banbury Cross Players to present. With a large cast and, whilst not a musical, featuring several songs and accompanying dance, it is not what they normally do.

Described as a ‘bawdy romp’ in the programme I am not convinced that this was ever really achieved on stage. There is a lot of saucy wordplay, some of which would not have been out of place in Carry On Nell, some nice double entendres and, memorably, 'I can dance and I can sing and I can do the other thing'. But for me – and, I think the packed first night audience - the show lacked the buzz and pace that the piece needed.

Nell is at the centre of the action and never off the stage for long – it’s a very big, demanding, part. But the charming and enthusiastic Joanne Sammon never quite convinced me that she IS Nell, which is essential for the show to succeed. All the ingredients – the girlish naivety, the bare-faced cheek, the occasional hardness (I was touched by the uneasy scene with her mother, Old Ma Gwynn, played by Janice Lake), her ability to manipulate the king - are there; they just need drawing together as a rounded character. So, a work in progress which I think will rapidly improve as the run goes on.  

The play divides between scenes at the theatre and scenes at the court of Charles II.

Mark Walden is very convincing as the harassed actor-manager Thomas Killigrew, constantly looking for plays to put on, and Steve Ramsden is dynamism and charm personified as Nell’s acting teacher and lover, Charles Hart. Jem Turner plays John Dryden with a nice sense of comedy – though I found the suggestion that Dryden was a plagiarist very hard to swallow. Nik Lester shows total skill and commitment in his portrayal of Edward Kynaston ‘an actor of female roles’ who, in a delightfully comic performance, refuses to see the writing on the wall as the king gives his seal of approval to ‘real women’ on stage. (Well, he would do, wouldn’t he?) Hilary Beaton also convinces as Nell’s dresser, full of common sense whatever the thespians are getting up to.

Ian Nutt, as King Charles II, carries off the role in a regal manner but at the same time demonstrates well Charles’ anxieties as the newly-restored monarch in a country yet to stabilise after Cromwell’s revolutionary rule. There are also some tender and funny scenes with Nell. Andrew Whiffin clearly has a good understanding of Lord Arlington, the king’s advisor, which he played with the distinct air of an experienced civil servant. Lady Castlemaine, the mistress preceding Nell, is performed with authority by Hannah Ramsden. And both Deborah Watson and Katy Roberts accomplish their roles as Queen Catherine (all in Portugese) and Louise de Keroualle (mostly in French) extremely well.  

Singing and dancing are of a good standard with diction generally as clear as a bell. I especially enjoyed ‘I can dance and I can sing…’ and the song about the ‘gross chapeau’.

The excellent musical accompaniment for the show is provided by musical director, Kieron Galliard

Theset was impressive, simple, but making a big statement and, as a result, very effective and costumes which are just right for the period and the characters.

On its first night this show did not really ‘spark’ for me. That said, it is clearly the result of a great deal of work and deserves to succeed. I hope that, with any initial jitters out of the way it will go from strength to strength during the week.


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