Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

nell gwynn cast

Fan waving Paul Marks as Edward Kynaston leads the cast in song. Pictures: Emily White

Nell Gwynn

Highbury Players

Highbury Theatre Centre


Restoration comedies go back about 350 years or so, or six years when it comes to this particular case with Jessica Swales modern version, her Olivier award winning glorious romp through the life and times of Nell Gwynn.

The history never gets in the way of the fun though, we never drift into studious historical drama or documentary, what you get is laughs, wit and entertainment - and without even knowing it you will smile your way home having learned something new about Nell and her times.

Nell, played with a mix of confident bolshiness and vulnerability by Laura McLaurie, was the daughter of a brothel keeper, a prostitute, an orange girl selling oranges . .  amongst other things . . . at London theatres, graduating to actress and rising to the elevated position of Charles II’s probably favourite and longest lasting mistress.

Charles, played by Duncan McLaurie, has a regal bearing and treats mistresses as playthings, except when it comes to Nell, his real life wife by the way, who can play him like a violin.

Gwynn’s climb out of the sex trade was thanks to the leading actor of the King’s Company, Charles Hart, convincingly played by Ken Agnew, who plucks the orange girl from the stalls on to the stage seeing in her an actor-ess, something Charles II was about to sanction.

The pair, teacher and protégé, were to become lovers. Less enthusiastic was the actor manager of the company, Thomas Killigrew, holding it all together in the hands of Phil Astle. Killigrew is not a fan of female actors, but he is a pragmatist, and as rival companies are packing ‘em in with their female actors, he knows he has to move with the times.

One such company was the Duke’s Company, with Moll Davis. Incidentally, although not explicit in the play, she was also to become a notch on Charles’s bedpost.


Richard Constable as John Dryden explains a point in the script, which will no doubt be written soon, to Nancy, played by Sharon Clayton, Rose Gwynn, played by Amy White and Nell, played by Laura McLaurie

Even less enthusiastic is Edward Kynaston, who has made a career out of playing female leads while women have been banned. He cannot understand why anyone would want to see a real woman, especially one who was, should we say, “getting’ em out for the lads” instead of a seasoned, pasty faced, way, way over the top, affected, bloke, who even if he isn’t yet over the hill, has a pretty good view of the other side and acts like the heroine in a really bad Victorian melodrama who is suffering from a terrible headache and a loose wig.

"What's she got that I haven't got?" he asks. "Tits", comes the reply.

It is a brilliant performance from Paul Marks, who flounces around, a precious prima donna, giving ham a bad name. His long, rambling tale as to why a serving girl, merely a walk on part, would need to know what wood the door she comes though . . . and leaves by, almost immediately . . .is made from is a gem. Apparently its provenance could affect her motivation and her performance, especially if it is oak because . . . the will to live us fading fast at this boint.

Regular Sharon Clayton weighs in with Nancy, the company’s wardrobe mistress with some wonderful comic touches when Nancy is drafted in to act, displaying a lack of talent that is painfully funny to watch.

 Then there is Ned, the aspiring actor, played by Chad Dent, who turns the prologue into a marathon as he keeps forgetting lines, much to the annoyance of a heckler, which appears to be Robert Hicks, doing a bit of moonlighting from his day job as the rather superior and rather sinister advisor to the king, Lord Arlington. The heckler ending up in a slanging match with Nell which is what draws her to the attention of Mr ‘Art.

Arlington, incidentally, tells us quite emphatically that "There are no jokes in politics" . . . well, that's questionable, but we will leave that debate for another time.

Playwright of the King’s Company was John Dryden, played with all the confidence of Hugo in The Vicar of Dibley, in a lovely performance by Richard Constable. Dryden, who, in real life, was contracted to write three plays a year by the company and was never happy with his work as a dramatist, is seen here writing, or usually is just about to finish plays with plots that make Crossroads look like Shakespeare. Mind you he does nick The Tempest as The Enchanted Island and turns it into a comedy, which was true, and, in real life, again, he was to become the first Poet Laureate.


Nell, hard as nails on one hand yet unsure and vulnerable on the other in the hands of Laura McLaurie

We also see more of the Gwynn family with sister Rose, played by Amy White, who becomes angry with Nell, who is living the court high life and deserting friends and family, and then there is her mother, Ma Gwynn, an alcoholic brothel keeper, a sozzled madam, played, or perhaps more swayed by Eliza Harris.

And, still on more earthy matters, we meet some of Charles’s mistresses, there is hardly time for all as they run into double figures, but first let us not forget his long suffering wife, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, played with 100 mph Latin fire by Amy White again – something you would never guess without a programme.

As for mistresses, top of the tree when we join the tale is the manipulative and ambitious Lady Castlemaine, played with a seductive slyness by Eliza Harris, a sort of you get what you want when I get what I want arrangement. It is another doubling up of roles which would go unnoticed without a glance at the cast list..

Then, not so much a mistress as a diplomatic liaison, we have Louise De Keroualle, Charles’ French bit on the side, played by Dominika Nala, with perfect French, on her Highbury acting debut.

Beyond the production Charles, had 13 illegitimate children, but no heir. One was Nell's son Charles, who he made Duke of St Albans with an allowance of £1,000 a year. A second son, James, died aged six, in Paris.

The king was to die playing croquet with Nell which ended her life in court circles although the new monarch, James II, honoured his brother Charles's dying wish to not let poor Nelly starve, paying off her debts and mortgage and awarding her a pension of £1,500 a year.

The production is marked by some splendid period costumes from the Highbury wardrobe department and Theatrehouse and a set (Malcolm Robertshow) of solid looking stone walls. Andy Wilkes and Andrew Birkbeck did a fine job on lighting and sound – which needed some tying in with plenty of songs (music arranged by Duncan McLaurie) while, as this was mid 17th century, there were plenty of wigs (Brenda Leedham) in evidence.

If there was a criticism it was pace. A steady succession of scene changes slowed things down making it difficult to build momentum, but changes should become slicker and pace improve as the run goes on but, that being said, it is hardly a distraction and director Ian Appleby has done a fine job in bringing this witty, bawdy and very funny play to life on the Highbury stage.

It's fun, clever, has some glorious moments and comic gems and is a splendid antidote to the misery of the past 18 months. Well worth making the trip back in time. To 25-09-21.

Roger Clarke


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