The Restoration of Nell Gwyn, Park Theatre, review: ‘Wonderfully bawdy’

Elizabeth Mansfield in The Restoration of Nell Gwynn. Picture: Anthony Robling

Elizabeth Mansfield in The Restoration of Nell Gwynn. Picture: Anthony Robling - Credit: Archant

David Winskill enjoys this insightful take on the life of a local girl done-good.

You knew Steve Trafford’s play about Nell Gwyn and the last day of Charles II was going to be something special as soon as it opened.

Elizabeth Mansfield’s Nell was arranged on a chair with a Baroque guitar under the magic of Nao Gagai’s excellent lighting, looking like a Vermeer painting.

Maidservant Margery (a brilliant Angela Curran) was failing to spark a candle. With a knowing look to the audience, she pressed the switch of the electric look-a-like: the light flickers and hilarity ensues.

This is the story of local (almost) girl done-good. Twenty minutes from The Park is Highgate’s Lauderdale House where Nell lived for a while with her bastard son sired by Charles.

The King is dying and Nell wants to see him one last time to say goodbye (her affection is genuine) and claim the title Countess of Greenwich.

She rages in Cockney at the court snobbery and hypocrisy of his other mistresses and so opens a compelling window onto restoration England.

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One hundred minutes of stage time flew by with razor sharp and tavern-witty dialogue. As a bonus, the tunes wonderfully sung by Nell (and yes, she plays the guitar beautifully) are by Henry Purcell.

Nell is a born survivor: sold when a child, she crawls, scratches and fans her way to the bedchamber of the King and, despite her ‘umble background, becomes a favourite. We learn of her fears of getting old and the insecurities that were the backdrops to everyone’s life.

Earthy doesn’t do justice to the manners. Constipated, she calls for a pot, hoists her skirts, and squats behind a curtain. After inspecting the parcel Margery advances to the front row, says “excuse me” and tosses the contents over the shoulder of the hapless audience member.

The dialogue sparkles and paints a raw picture of life in the second half of the 17th century – manners, politics, patriarchy, health, theatre, sexual mores and contraception (it involved sheep guts), the value of life, loyalty.

Wonderfully bawdy, insightful and touching: and n’ere a mention of oranges.

Rating: 4/5 stars