The Restoration Of Nell Gwyn
Studio, York Theatre Royal, October 14
Bawdy humour, quick wit and jollity are just some of the ingredients employed in this enjoyable new comedy by Steve Trafford, which tells the tale of one of Restoration England’s most well-known and colourful characters.
The year is 1685 and King Charles II lies on his deathbed. As news of his ailing condition spreads through London Nell Gwynn, the king’s mistress (played by Elizabeth Mansfield), is wracked with fears; not only for her own future once her royal protector is gone, but also for the loss of the man she loves.
At her side is her ever faithful maid, Margery (Angela Curran), whose calming influence and no nonsense northern attitude provides a steadying influence on Nell’s restless nature.
The varying fortunes and personalities of both women – feisty Nell’s rise from the gutter to royal favour, and Margery’s struggles with plague and poverty – provide an interesting contrast within the play.
While Nell is still brimming with the joie de vivre that first caught the king’s eye, Margery’s more modest, Puritan values are a reminder of the dark days of Cromwell’s dreary republic, which has taught her to resist the kinds of temptations that Nell has already fallen to.
This is not to say that the faithful maid is not without her own sense of fun, and her witty and clever observations are true audience ticklers.
But with Charles now dying and uncertain times ahead, both women must learn to adapt in order to survive in a world divided by social hierarchy, politics and religion.
Music also has an important role in the play, which is punctuated by Elizabeth Mansfield’s delightful singing voice and accomplished lute playing.
As she performs works by the likes of John Dryden (a contemporary of Nell Gwynn’s) between scenes, the audience is truly immersed in the sound of Restoration England, with the songs cleverly chosen to reflect Nell’s own hopes and fears.
This blend of music, comedy, melancholy and tales of past glories combine to create an engaging and thought provoking piece of drama, but it is the bond of affection between two very different and strong women that truly holds the story together.