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Theatre Review: Nell Gwynn at Lace Market Theatre

30 January 20 words: Anna Marshall

Anna Marshall popped down to see this splendiferous performance...

The Lace Market Theatre's production of Nell Gwynn, a play by Jessica Swale written in 2013, is a rags to riches tale of a young orange seller with a zest for acting and lover to King Charles II.  She, in many ways, epitomised the libitarian ideals of the age. The first woman in a long while to grace the London stage, she also came from the slums of London’s Cheapside according to this story. Although nobody really knows where Nell came from.  

Bawdy jokes are abundant, befitting the times but Nell herself, played by local actress Georgia Wray, appears frail and vulnerable as she tries to negotiate her family loyalties with her obligation to the Restoration Theatre, and the demanding sexual needs of the King.  Stronger characters at play are the alcoholic mother, her theatre tutor (and lover) Charles Hart, played to theatrical and comic effect by Matthew Thomason, the King’s conniving mistress Lady Castlemaine, and the King himself, performed with eccentric delight by Jamie Goodliffe. 

Although the performances themselves are excellent, the play portrays Nell as a love-sick devotee of the King rather than a tough woman using her wit and charm to survive against the odds. This detracts from the feminist values that Swale promotes at other times.  As it is a play within a play, Nell at one point says that she is tired of women being represented by Shakespeare as willing to ‘die for love’, as if they are worth nothing without a man beside them. 

Newl Gwynn is on at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 1 February.
Lace Market Theatre website