Oscar Duffy enjoys an evening of raucous Restoration fun with Durham University Classical Theatre’s Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale.
DUCT’s Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale has proved an interesting and fun choice, perfect for the festive season; it is a breezy and jolly production which entertains throughout its runtime, however a couple of odd staging choices stop it from reaching its full potential.
The play itself is a perfect cocktail of history, comedy and drama. It chronicles the life and career of the eponymous heroine, a common orange seller who rises to become one of the first employed actresses in England as well as mistress to King Charles II. The script is one filled with wit and pace and the production does a fantastic job at immersing the audience in the historical setting. Restoration England is brought to life consistently by the fantastic use of music from Acacia To, a talented string ensemble heard throughout the play, and the interspersion of musical performances between scenes. These bring a sense of fun and seamlessly transition between scenes.
The choice to have actors in and around the audience before the play begins is a successful one, as it immediately creates an immersive experience, especially as the story itself is so concerned with the theatre. Yet there are quite a few issues with the staging overall, and director Gabbie Sills has clearly struggled to make use of the admittedly unrewarding Vane Tempest room in Dunelm House. Indeed, the decision to place scenes that do not take place in the theatre off the physical stage and within the audience is on the surface a logical one; it is a useful way of reconciling the rapid changes in location, from the playhouse to the royal court, but is frustratingly ineffective. For many of the scenes involving the king and courtiers, the action happens behind the audience. Forcing the audience to look behind them is not only confusing but also exposes the fact that the two back corners were acting as de facto backstage areas, with the cast members not on stage frequently causing distraction.
When the action is on the stage itself however, Sills proves skilful at managing a large number of characters in a small space. This is particularly notable in scenes involving Nell’s fellow actors, as the stage is able to inhabit all of the characters without it ever feeling cluttered or messy, thus allowing the witty dialogue to flow perfectly.
The performances should of course be noted, as the production boasts some really impressive work. Daniella Pollendine is a pitch-perfect Nell Gwynn, confident and bawdy yet relatable and charming in equal measure. She is a standout in a cast of mostly worthy performances. Special mention should also go to Darrius Kudiabor-Thompson who revels the chance to be the playful but tortured King Charles, caught between staving off rebellion and pursuing Nell. Richard Sharpe is also a cracking comedic presence as the disenfranchised male actor who has made a career playing women, only to be replaced by women themselves. The cast delivers a dense amount of dialogue with little if any mistakes.
Nell Gwynn is not perfect. It has fundamental issues with the staging decisions that distract from the extremely fun material. However, it is made up for by a consistently atmospheric production, highlighted by a fun use of music and some excellent performances. It is well worth seeing as an end-of-term treat.
Nell Gwynn will be playing in the Vane Tempest Room at Dunelm House on 8th December at 7:30pm.