Saturday, July 20

Nell Gwynn – Neston Civic Hall

A strong cast and brilliant costumes make this a funny, colourful and very watchable show.

The historical character of Nell Gwynn is famous for being an orange-seller, an actress and of course mistress of Charles II and in Jessica Swale’s comedy-drama we certainly see her as a witty, outspoken and independent woman.  Swale brings together a mix of bawdy, carry-on comedy, some good storytelling and the injection of songs, to make an entertaining piece of theatre, which beyond the titillation and double-entendre, is actually saying something about theatre generally and women’s place in the theatre and society.

Neston players, probably more used to presenting drama than comedy, have taken on the play under the leadership of new director Shannon McMullan.  As a vibrant group they have many successes under their belts, including a recent Noda award for their production of Witness for the Prosecution. McMullan knows she has some experience to call on in both cast and support. One always gets the feeling at Neston that the whole community comes together. Indeed, the performances were all sold out before the first night. This is amateur theatre really serving its local area and it’s good to see.

In her programme notes McMullan says, ‘I hope you have a good time!’ and it definitely seemed everyone did – both on and off stage.  A strong cast and brilliant costumes made this a funny, colourful and very watchable show appreciated by rapturous applause.

In the title role, Jemma Brown gives a confident and cheeky Nell who I liked best in her more dramatic, poignant moments.  Playing opposite her is the very aimable Nick Hawkswell as the rather randy King Charles. He has a great voice and facial expressions, as well as some tenderness in showing his genuine love for Nell. Alexander Breathnach gives a clear and authoritative Mr Killigrew and Stuart Harpers Dryden, the inept playwright, was wide-eyed and energetic. Stuart Rathe as the leading actor Hart, was suitably smitten by Nell and broken-hearted (at least for a moment) when she left him for the King. The historical Charles Hart is actually a really interesting character, but Swale doesn’t give him a backstory – perhaps that’s another play! 

A lovely little comedic part is Nancy, the backstage dresser, played delightfully by Rebecca Burke-Sharples, whose expression and body language is super, maybe just a little more projection? The stiff and snooty Lord Arlington is played with a haughty air by Simon Garland and Gordan Wallis finds his more feminine side with Edward Kynaston – the actor who always played the heroine until the arrival of Nell. Here we have some comedy- almost pantomime moments- with his voice fluctuating from baritone to falsetto. Jenny Clements as Nell’s sister Rose is a very natural presence and her scene after their mother’s death is particularly well delivered. Kitty Clements as Ned – has natural enthusiasm and excitement. The ensemble of four ladies give good support especially in the singing.

However, for me, the best moments of the show came from two actors who both took on two very different cameo roles. Pauline Garland’s Queen Catherine is hilarious but in truth the real Catherine of Bragenza was neglected and overlooked by history, yet here she has her moment – she owned the stage and even if it was all in Portuguese it is very funny and memorable. Garland returns in the second Act as Nell’s drunken mother – giving us a whole new dynamic, which is so well delivered and also very funny.  Garland showing once again there are no small parts in theatre.  If Garland gets the grumpy and gummy roles, Charlotte Cumming’s gets the glamourous.  As Lady Castlemaine, Charles’ Mistress, she is controlling, condescending and puffed up in crimson satin, only to return as Louise de Keroualle, playful, giggly and very French, looking like little Bo-peep in her marvelous gown and hat. At this point, I should mention ‘hats’ for a hat will actually take centre stage at one point and… I take my hat off to those responsible for the costumes – Ally Sullivan gets the credit, but I understand they were sourced and made by different people, and they were quite spectacular. 

By choosing to have minimal staging, the large ensemble is able to use the space well: the thrust stage is a sensible addition to the small village hall stage but playing to three sides can have its problems with audiences seeing the backs of character for too long. The blocking coped well, in the main, with this and certainly from where I sat the sightlines were good.  The backdrop of red velvet drapes gives a sense of the royal presence and by using the different levels of staging to sit on, it means there’ s no need for chairs that have to be moved on and off.

The soundtrack was eclectic with the use of classical and modern, as well as the original songs by Swale and Nigel Heiss (composer) which are performed and danced with gusto. The lighting is bright: perhaps there could have be some variation to give some contrast but all in all this is a well presented, jolly romp of play that makes us laugh, tap our feet and sometimes feel a little sad.

If I am honest, I would have liked the ensemble to be a little more ragged and dirty to contrast with the royalty but that’s a minor point and at three hours it was a tad too long so a few edits would have tightened it up. But if you want an entertaining evening of fun and frivolity I’d say buy a ticket – but its all sold out! So, catch them next time when they present the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe in November.


Reviewer: Bev Clark 

Reviewed: 8th May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.