NELL GWYNN at Severndroog Castle
Restoration comedy is about mocking the ruling class and shocking audiences. Both feats are hilariously achieved in Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale’s 2011 homage to the form, but she also peppers it with contemporary resonances that make it a dazzling theatrical experience, especially when it is staged by such a fine company as Changeling Theatre in such a gorgeous setting as the wooded grounds of Severndroog Castle.
The production, directed with a wonderfully light touch by Rob Forknall, had everything – drama, slapstick, emotion, music (by Alex Scott) , dancing, audience participation and plenty of excellent and knowing jokes taking the mickey out of the monarchy, politics, social divisions, foreigners and showbiz. And the cast threw themselves into the action with real relish.
Rhianna McGreevy was simply magnificent as flame-haired Nell, taking the theatre world by storm before winning the heart of a king in a love story that was utterly convincing.
Charles II was brilliantly played as a kind of rock god by Scott Ellis, while Jess Nesling was his match playing two of his mistresses, one a ghastly English snob, the other a bitchy French aristo. And Layomi Coker had a terrific cameo as the king’s unhappy Portuguese wife yelling at him in her native language over his serial philandering. She was also Nell’s sister Rose.
The play’s action is divided fairly evenly between Nell’s romance with the king and her working life as part of a theatre company. In a neat and very funny touch, the 17th century thespians are portrayed as a bunch of hams and we were treated to the glorious spectacle of talented actors having to act atrociously – a real skill.
Several of them were also accomplished musicians. Matt Penson showed off his skills as a guitarist as well as playing an actor-manager and a dour adviser to the king, Rory Fairbairn showed off his abilities as a cellist while camping it up as a theatrical dame and Albert Graver played the mandolin and clarinet on top of portraying the playwright John Dryden. He also bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Tom Stoppard.
One of the best of the hammers was Nicholas Masters-Waage, whose over-the-top acting was a highlight of the plays within a play. And Tegan Steward, as a young apprentice player, was equally good with her fabulously awful prologues.
The final member of Nell’s company was Nancy the dresser, played by Beth Mullen. She was marvellous - I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a finer exhibition of comic timing and understatement.
This production, beautifully designed by Robin Soutar, was nothing less than exceptional. And it underlined the fact that Changeling are among the very best theatre companies in the business.