I HAD high expectations for this play from English Touring Theatre as it reached Malvern after winning the 2016 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
The first signs were good when I was greeted by a gloriously lavish set that managed to cleverly combine a 17th Century theatre with the royal palace for this comedy about King Charles II’s notorious mistress, actress Nell Gwynn.
Created by Jessica Swale, she has made a very human love story from what is essentially a Cinderella tale of a poor lowly orange-seller turned actress who catches the eye and heart of the king.
It’s also very much a love story about acting too and the history of theatre at a time when women were starting to emerge on stage instead of boy actors in the female roles.
Esh Alladi as Edward Kynaston, an actor playing the women’s parts, has the funniest lines as he regales against his dying trade with lines like “an actor-ess – it’ll never catch on”. Alladi is hilarious and eye-catching in his spitefulness to Nell along with his fake material boobs.
What’s refreshing is that this lively, vivacious romp of a play is also very feminist in nature.
It follows on from Swale’s well-received debut Blue Stockings, which celebrated the first women to get a university education. She is giving women not just a voice but complex and interesting characters to play on stage.
You can tell that Laura Pitt-Pulford relishes the lead role of Nell and shines bright with boldness and audacity that makes it obvious why she would attract a king.
Swale also gives Nell’s lovers - actor Charles Hart (Same Marks), who gives Nell her big break, and the King (Ben Righton), more depth than just pretty faces and there’s a real emotion among this love triangle.
Ultimately, it’s the comedy that makes this play so special. It sparks with wit and skips along at a lively pace, even including current jokes about Brexit.
English Touring Theatre has brought this play on tour but it was co-produced with Shakespeare’s Globe, where it was first performed and returns this summer.
It’s a joy from start to finish and worthy of its prized Olivier Award, so catch it while you can. To 18-03-17