When it comes to extravagance, bawdy humour, and political intrigue, there’s no period quite like the English Restoration. Emerging from the wake of a decade of Civil War and an almost equally arduous decade of Cromwell’s Puritan rule, the reign of Charles II is often associated with fun, splendour and sexual laxity.
Aside perhaps from the king himself, no one seems to represent the spirit of the era more utterly than Nell Gwynn. Born in a ‘bawdy house’ and working the oldest profession from an early age, Gwynn rose to fame as one of the first generation of female actresses on the London stage. Catching the attention of the notorious womaniser King Charles, she eventually joined the court as one his most favoured mistresses. She continued to perform onstage and bore him two children, the surviving son obtaining noble rank.
In Jessica Swale’s play, originally performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2015, social mobility and female theatricality are the dominant themes. The main character starts the play as a humble orange seller, catching the attention of the travelling theatre troupe with her performative heckling. Nell has no education or social class to lean on, but her biting wit and flirtatious charm earns the affection of first her acting teacher Charles Hart and later the king himself. But like any upstart, she encounters resistance and scorn from those who believe their status is being usurped. Additionally by joining the court she finds herself reluctantly entangled within the complex political minefield, in a country where the divides of the Civil War still simmer beneath the surface.
The Castle Hill Players bring Nell Gwynn to life admirably, bringing the Restoration stage to life with an authentic dose of fun and licentiousness, while allowing the more serious themes to come out naturally. Tiffany Hoy captures perfectly the extroverted warmth of Nell, along with the cunning survival ethic below the surface. Paul Sztelma also shines as the rakish but surprisingly astute King Charles, with a few scenes that subvert the monarch’s current and historical reputation as a lazy profligate. There are a number of musical numbers written specifically for this production by musician Geoff Jones, and the costumes by Anthea Brown capture the period beautifully in all of its extravagance and rigid class distinctions.