[Originally Published by On:Yorkshire Magazine: http://www.on-magazine.co.uk/arts/yorkshire-theatre/restoration-nell-gwyn-review-york-theatre-royal/]
Restoration Comedy is a style of drama that flourished in London after the Restoration in 1660. These plays typically had complicated plots marked by wit (more often than not the bawdy kind), cynicism and licentiousness. The Restoration of Nell Gwyn, a new play by Steve Trafford, certainly ticks all of the boxes, with plenty of innuendo and bawdy jokes along with cynical observations of the Restoration period and the modern day.
It is a two-woman show that is made all the more intimate by the setting of York Theatre Royal’s wonderful Studio – a small performance space that really makes you feel part of the action. It would have been strange watching such a show on a large stage as it is light on props and scenery, so the feeling that is created in the Studio was paramount to the enjoyment of the performance.
The play is based on the life of one of the Restoration period’s most famous actresses, Nell Gwyn, played by Elizabeth Mansfield, and her semi-fictional maid Margery, played by Angela Curran. Both performances are absolutely fantastic. Mansfield captures Nell’s theatrical side and high emotions very well by railing between laughter and impersonations one minute and hysterical crying the next, whilst Curran’s level-headed Margery remains in control of Nell and the play itself throughout.
The play opens with Margery setting the scene of this time in Nell’s life and the period in history during which her lover Charles II was lying in his deathbed, thus leaving her future very uncertain. She had risen from the slums in London to the top ranks of society and into Charles’ bedchamber due to her huge success as an actress, but a change in rule to his strict brother could signal a very bitter end for Nell. The bawdy wit starts as soon as the play does as Margery’s prologue is full of innuendo and this certainly sets the tone for the rest of the evening. The play capitalises on the advantages of such an intimate setting by getting the audience involved in the action with funny asides from the off, including Margery obviously switching the fake candles on at the bottom instead of lighting them.
Overshadowing the huge differences between the two women is their obvious affection for one another and their reliance on each other. They have clearly bonded over their shared struggle for survival: Margery was saved by Nell after being found in the gutter and Nell fears that her new-found wealth and quality of life could disappear once Charles II dies. They each have chosen a very different way to make their way through an often unforgiving Restoration London – Margery by being chaste and serving someone with good social standing and Nell by giving into temptation and selling herself to reach lofty heights.
I found myself completely engrossed in the play as it delved into the complicated history of the time with beautifully-written monologues. Margery’s description of the impact of the plague on her family was really touching, especially when it was in stark contrast to Nell’s experience of being transported away from disease-ridden London to Oxford with the rest of the Royal Players. The complicated story was punctuated with stunning Baroque songs, using music by Henry Purcell, that were performed faultlessly by Mansfield. Her singing was mesmerising. The pace of the play was just right, as was the balance of serious scenes with almost ridiculous ones, with Nell doing impressions and mini performances from the plays she was best known for.
The second half of the play centres on Nell trying to sneak her way in to see King Charles II as she has been told that all women have been banned from his room. This is where we see a tribute to Nell’s famous talents of portraying male parts in Restoration plays extremely well as she decides to try and trick them into thinking she is a French aristocrat! The range of different accents and parts that Mansfield portrays is impressive and very true to Nell’s renowned acting ability.
The play comes to a head in the closing scene with some home truths being delivered to Nell by Margery that nearly end their friendship. In the final song Nell implores us to ‘remember her’ despite the huge change London and England is about to experience now Charles II has died. It is a very poignant end to a play full of highs and lows and the final scenes leave you thinking about the similarities between the difficulties faced by people then, they were divided by religious beliefs and opposing thoughts about the monarchy, and the ones that face us now.
If this would be your first experience of a Restoration era-inspired play it is a great one to start with as Trafford has made it very accessible and Mansfield and Curran’s performances are truly compelling.