The Restoration of Nell Gwyn

Steve Trafford with songs by Henry Purcell
Ensemble and York Theatre Royal
Park Theatre (Park 90)

Elizabeth Mansfield as Nell Gwyn Credit: Anthony Robling
Elizabeth Mansfield as Nell Gwyn and Angela Curran as Margery Credit: Anthony Robling
Angela Curran as Margery and Elizabeth Mansfield as Nell Gwyn Credit: Anthony Robling

Sweet Nell of Old Drury, the orange seller who became actress and royal mistress, is the subject of Steve Trafford’s latest biographical play.

Her name conjures up an image of curling tresses and cleavage. Samuel Pepys, who is said to have had a naked portrait of her over his desk at the Admiralty, described her as “pretty, witty Nell.” When mistaken for the Catholic Duchess of Portsmouth, her rival in King Charles II’s bed, she boldly declared, “I am the Protestant whore.” Charles himself, on his deathbed, charged his brother James II “let not poor Nelly starve.“

That's the romantic image but what was the real woman like? Last year at Shakespeare’s Globe, Jessica Swale’s bawdy, anachronistic version of Nell Gwyn’s life romped across the stage (it opens on Shaftesbury Avenue next month) but this is different. It’s a two-hander to start with and is set in the last days of Charles II’s reign as he lay in his sick bed at Whitehall.

In her Pall Mall home, Nell frets at not being allowed to see him for all women, except the Queen, have been banned from his bedside. She sends her servant Margery to grease palms and get her access without success, worries about her future, talks of going back on the stage and, at the suggestion of her court contact, puts on men’s clothes to attempt entrance.

There’s not much more than that as plot but it provides an opportunity to give a flavour of the age, a backward glimpse into her life, and create a character portrait that Elizabeth Mansfield makes full of caustic vitality. Nell was an actress of many talents and as her (fictional) maid Margery tells us she loved to sing.

Trafford punctuates his dialogue with music: Nell singing, sometimes accompanying herself on a baroque type guitar. Her songs are all Henry Purcell’s music, the lyrics mainly by dramatist John Dryden and Mansfield sings them beautifully. These songs echo the sentiments of the action, especially an extract from the final lament from Dido and Aneas, but they don’t carry it forward, rather bringing it to a temporary halt.

In the same way, the talk of past life, of entry into whoredom, the plague scourge, the use of an early contraceptive sheath, the last male actors playing women, even a lesson in how to use a fan—all these offer fascinating information but meanwhile things stand still. It is informative but interrupts the drama putting the main interest upon the personality of the former actress and the playing of the performer.

Elizabeth Mansfield certainly makes her surprising. Her confident cockney commonness is feisty and forthright but she can turn on the court lady and the aristo accent in a moment, become the accomplished actress.

There is a lovely performance too from Angela Curran as Preston born Margery. She’s mainly there to provide Nell with someone to talk to and to be a sort of chorus/narrator voice but makes her a real character. When the play reaches its third act, Margery, who has been rooted in the practicalities of real life, briefly takes it in a new direction.

While Nell has known the gutter, offered as “the daughter of a country parson” for her girlhood despoilation, she’s a royalist who still hopes for ennoblement. It turns out that Margery’s family were anti-royalist Quakers. It is an interesting opposition but not taken further.

Trafford’s script has style and wit but when spoken his word-play sounds sometimes too consciously clever but not enough to harm its humour and, with full-bodied playing from these well-matched performers, there is plenty to laugh at.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton