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Brimfull of bawdiness - Nell Gwynn at Malvern Festival Theatre

Published by: G.D. Mills on 17th Mar 2017 | View all blogs by G.D. Mills

When Nell Gwynn, legs akimbo and fan swinging in lieu of a certain appendage, melodiously invites us to stroke her ‘cock...cock...cockerspaniel’ , we know what kind of night we are in for.  

Brimfull of bawdiness, and peopled with figures from 17th century theatrical London, Jessica Swale’s metaplay takes for its material the bare details of Nell Gwynn’s life, a Cheapside prostitute and orange seller who ended up, via King Charles II’s bed, one of the most celebrated comedy actresses of her age. Most of the action occurs in and around the theatre as Nell, closely watched by her kingly suitor, prepares for performance.  

A whole range of 21st century themes (feminism, celebrity, European politics) gatecrash our attention under the guise of Restoration comedy. For starters, we are presented with one of the first women to grace the English stage, and one who manages, for a while at least, to subjugate the most powerful man in Britain, while the exchanges between Charles II and his advisor drip with dramatic irony: Charles cavalierly suggests England detach itself from the politics of Europe, in response to which his advisor as good as calls him an idiot.  

The stage and costume is ablaze with gold, and the occasional musical numbers, replete with comic choreography, further dynamize an already bustling stage.  

Ben Righton presents us with a charming if roguish king, one more dedicated to the pleasures of the bedchamber than to the pedantry of politics, while Michael Cochrane’s Arlington, Charles II’s right hand man, is both lordly and lecturing, offering a rare note of moral censure in a world otherwise dripping with licentiousness. 

Edward Kynaston (Esh Alladi) is outrageously catty as the company’s ousted player of female parts while Laura Pitt-Pulford handles a challenging lead role with wit, charm and precision: she is a hard bargaining, yet likeable, sexual provocateur who shrewdly negotiates the terrain between backstreet bordello and regal bedchamber.  

This high-energy, swiftly moving play has so much comedy and caricature in it that there is little room left over for character depth or development, a small minus perhaps in an otherwise masterful production. Acclaimed in London when A-lister Gemma Arterton played Nell, this slightly revamped version is now touring the provinces.  

Catch it now, visit






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