Nell Gwynn

Aug 15 2022 | By More

★★★★☆     Cheerful

St Ninian’s Hall (Venue 230): Mon 8 – Sat 20 Aug 2022
Review by Hugh Simpson

Nell Gwynn, presented by Edinburgh Theatre Arts at St Ninian’s, is a hugely enjoyable romp, presented by an enviably well-drilled cast.

Jessica Swale’s 2015 play, a West End hit, is one of many to tell the story of Gwynn. She was one of the first females to act on the London stage but is probably best known for her relationship with King Charles II.

David McCallum as Charles and Kirsty Doull as Nell. Pic: ETA

The play is such a mish-mash that it shouldn’t really work – but it does. There are songs, but it isn’t really a musical; much of the humour is so broad it approaches the seaside-postcard level, but it is all actually quite serious; Nell is a figure exploited by men, but is presented as a proto-feminist.

The story is dominated by Nell, played with drive and sparkle by Kirsty Doull. Her accent does wander at times, but this is a small criticism when the performance is so energetic and endearing.

King Charles is played by David McCallum with a convincing self-possession, even if some of his dialogue seems to require a Sid James cackle. The character takes some believing, of course – how could Britain ever have been run by a preening manchild with ridiculous hair, who rides roughshod over the wishes of Parliament and doesn’t seem to know how many children he has?

Sterling support is provided by the rest of the cast. Mags McPherson shines as Nell’s dresser Nancy and as the drunken Ma Gwynn, while Kerry Trewern is excellent as Nell’s sister Rose and Charles’s neglected wife Catherine. Georgie Purvis is icily effective as two other women in the King’s life.

Colin McPherson as Hart with Kirsty Doull as Nell. Pic: ETA

Colin McPherson, as the actor Charles Hart (who is the one who originally encourages Nell to act), manages to display a peevish self-regard while still evoking considerable sympathy.

Stuart Mitchell gives both the ‘actor-in-training’ Ned and company manager Killigrew a ludicrous dignity, while Derek Marshall’s Kynaston – incensed that his beloved female roles could be taken over by an actual woman – is a ridiculously exaggerated and very enjoyable figure.

One of the most unfortunate departures from the historical record is that John Dryden should be presented as a lazy, uninspired plagiarist, but Ruairidh Hastie gives the character comic life.

chilling turn

John McLinden (as well as directing with sensitivity and pace) puts in a chilling turn as Charles’s scheming minister Arlington.

There is real joy in the ensemble, particularly in the musical numbers (well arranged by Crawford Moyes), and the whole thing is tremendously well drilled.

Most of the problems of the production come from the original play; the second half meanders, and the ending is somewhat flat – perhaps because it tries to finish on an upbeat note.

It is certainly true that the pace does slacken notably after the interval, but a company forced to wear those ludicrous wigs in unprecedented temperatures can probably be excused. It also reinforces just how snappy the first half is, in a production of considerable wit and charm.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes (including one interval)
St Ninian’s Hall, 40 Comely Bank, EH94 1AG (venue 230)
Monday 8 – Saturday 20 August 2022
Daily (not Sun 14 – Tue 16) at 7.30 pm; Matinees Sats at 2.30 pm
Information and tickets: Book here.

Company website:
Instagram: edinburgh_theatre_arts
Facebook: edinburghtheatrearts
Twitter: @EdinTheatArts

David McCallum as Charles with Kirsty Doull as Nell and Mags McPherson as Nancy. Pic: ETA


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