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 (Rachel Adams) and her director and mentor, Thomas Killigrew (Jeremy Heynes)

Nell Gwynn

Loft Theatre Company, Leamington Spa


You can see within a few minutes of the Loft’s latest production why Jessica Swale’s play Nell Gwyn picked up copious comedy awards, including an Olivier.

It’s brisk, sharp, clever, perceptive, original. She never pontificates; or clings endlessly to ‘documentary’-type historical research. It thus gains a flair entirely its own.

She creates a panoply of wonderfully observed characters, allotted glorious lines which tickle us and make us laugh. As we gather, she wanted the play to be ‘an entertaining homage to Nell…I wanted it to be fun. Charles II was (post-Cromwell) a fun-loving king, who licensed the King’s Company, later challenged by the Duke (of York’s) company (subsequently the ill-fated James II). As the Director writes, Swale’s approach ‘allows her to throw in a veritable rag-bag of ideas...but it all comes wonderfully together in a rumbustious romp through the Restoration.’

Well, it all came together, marvellously, in Michael Rolfe’s frankly terrific staging, which has to be up with the Loft’s very best offerings. Pacing is vital to preserve the energy of the original, and here the pacing was superb: all the merits of the play itself were achieved by a wonderfully funny, finessed, deliciously bitchy cast. It never drooped, as such ingenious fast-moving scripts easily might. It fell into none of the dangers. Instead, it gave us an amazingly professional, cultured and endlessly imaginative show.

The script, which launched the Loft on this miraculous enterprise, is pure bliss. ‘No woman can play a woman as I can play a woman.’ ‘What does she have that I don’t?’ asks the forlorn former boy actor. ‘Tits.’ ‘I’ve a perfectly good pair of linen tits I’m very fond of’(and he’s disporting them as if exposed).’ ‘An actress? It’ll never last.’ ‘Have you got a bathroom?’ King: ‘I’ve got 43.’…I like a woman with spunk…‘People like to see me with the spaniels: it’s become a bit of a thing.’

Dryden: ‘I’ll just have to start again, again.’ Jettisoned mistress Barbara: ‘She’s a slave to the vapours... no wonder she’s barren.’ ‘Nobles are so tedious. Talking to an old bore like the Duke of Cambridge, I’d settle for a corpse any day.’ Sister Rose: ‘He’s the king of England.’ Nell: ‘He’s a man like any other man.’ Rose: ‘He’ll spit you out and send you back where you came from.’ There’s a crowd-pleasing joke about austerity; and a scrumptiously mucky joke about laxatives. And another plum: ‘Do what all the great actors have done since the Greeks trod the boards – fake it.’

Everything worked: amid the balustrade set, and amusing royal crest detail, all nicely consistent (and comic), extraordinarily bare and solitary on the king’s death, and picked out by Stage Technology maestro David Barclay’s whites, lilacs and blues (lighting, and sound – Dan Outhwaite – were as ever competent and finessed) evoke, not least, the palace where King Charles shelters from politics – emerged an utterly delicious performance from Sean Glock.


Oranges are not the only fruit. No wonder Charles II was ravished. Rachel Adams blossoms as a busty but brilliant Nell 


He was refined, posy, bemoustachioed, dapper, exquisite, littered with stylish French mannerisms (from his Commonwealth exile), a master of the perfect pause, and utterly hilarious; his wig and costumes (Wardrobe: Helens Brady and Jellicoe, guided by Director) were so perfect you’d have thought he was the real thing; when he turns up in full regalia, crimson and gold, with orb and sceptre, not unlike in his coronation portrait, you are simply bowled over.

Nell has wonderful reds, oranges (aptly), navy blues, a glorious bodice, ideal petticoat, and so on. When Kynaston turns out in full feminine peach regalia, it is a sensational revelation. These costumes were fantastic.

If Glock’s Charles was a pearl, an exquisite interpretation full of tiny nuances and natty detail, the central theme was of course his relations with Nell, unveiling a performance from Rachel Adams that suggested she should be on the Stratford stage tomorrow. What made her a true pro was the phenomenal range of her moves and gestures.

Her face was a picture, ever-changing, endlessly expressive. She had a cherishable range of speech and delivery. She could pout and scream (sisterly row; I thought Elizabeth Champion’s Rose Gwynn, her debut at the Loft, though a smallish/middle-sized role, showed immense promise: she has appeared in another Jessica Swale play, Blue Stockings,. and was not just Warwick University’s Rosalind, but Shylock and Dogberry elsewhere too!) Part of the set-tos featured Wendy Morris, the girls’ mother, as a glorious ancient tart-cum-bawdy-house-keeper-cum bag lady. ‘My little squirrel’; ‘you’re no different from the rest of my girls, only you charge more for your oyster.’ (a new one on me: not in the dictionary, but online as ‘genitalia, labia’. How clever, and notoriously apt. ) Was there any emotion, or characteristic, or mood, that the endlessly expressive Adams, ever changing like the weather and wind, could not invoke? I doubt it. An endlessly accomplished a beautifully inventive actress, she got Nell spot on. She made her a force to be reckoned with. She turned her into a wholly believable personality, rarely acquiescent, sure of herself (exiting from a grim Cheapside – though Coal Yard Alley near Drury Lane was her putative birthplace), fairly bossy, occasionally monstrous, hugely sexy, with just the right amount of appetising tits showing, out for the main chance but genuinely in love with King, as he with her (each to each other’s surprise), and guilty about abandoning the royal troupe of the (latterly septuagenarian) Thomas Killigrew (the redoubtable Jeremy Heynes, equally riddled with old fogey gestures, constantly inventing, and often enough a delicious self-parody). A kind of revived Peter Quince.

nell and king

 Nell Gwynn, Charles II's true love. Rachel Adams (Nell) and Sean Glock (the King)

When Nell flaunts her absence, there is room for others. One such is Edward Kynaston, clinging on to his role as one of the last boy players. Judging by the lips of the real thing, he was the epitome of a woman (Pepys called him ‘the loveliest lady that ever I saw in my life’; It was noted, ‘Part of Kynaston’s appeal may have been his ambiguous sexuality’.

Here Douglas Gilbey-Smith, in a rewardingly and utterly flamboyant manner, scored again and again; not so much with the slightly repetitive camp gestures, but in his entertainingly serious (and knowledgeable, and desolate) actorly contributions. Kynaston (b. 1640) was in his early 20s when Charles permitted actresses on the stage; we saw here the agonies of losing, not just roles, but boyhood. One was reminded of Cressida, Nick Wright’s play with Michael Gambon, and Michael Legge as Stephen Hammerton, his pretty star boy actor.

Kynaston has one long set-piece speech near the end – one of the best among many. He was incredibly moving. There was a poignancy about Gilbery-Smith that, of course, underwrote and underlay the bravado.

Providing more of Swale’s ‘fun’, Michael Rayns, significantly a former Chairman of the Loft (and a former Leontes, no mean feat) made a cheerfully old twerp, fussy and scarcely competent, of John Dryden, struggling to stitch a few lines together. Peter Daly-Dickson (who kicked off the performance with some curmudgeonly ‘audience’ complaints about inaudibility) made a nice fusspot of Charles’s endlessly frustrated (here) chief minister, Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington (‘There are no jokes in politics, only consequences’. Nell, on his dismissal: ‘You could walk the dogs.’ A: ‘There are nineteen of them.’ N: Twenty-two’. He died, ironically, the same year as the king). I and the audience especially liked Safia Lamrani as a sharp-featured Queen Catherine, pouring out a flood of angered and jealous (presumably) Portuguese, before switching effortlessly to French as the desirable Louise de Kérouaille, Duchess of Portsmouth (ancestress to both Princess Diana and the Duchess of Cornwall), who puts both the Queen’s and Nell’s noses out of joint when she wins the King’s (lasting) favour. Martha Markham made a suitably smug and dismissive Barbara, Lady Castlemaine, Nell’s predecessor as the king’s paramour.

Ned Spiggett is a bit of an also-ran, novice actor in Killigrew’s team, so Aaron Crockford did not badly. I would like to see him worked on (gestures, facial variety, use of hands – Heynes uses both hands separately, often to side-splitting effect) – plus variety of stance, and finding something to do, even picking his nose, while mute as events unfold, or engaging in dialogue. He clearly has fire in his belly – I narrowly missed his Artful Dodger in the Loft’s Oliver, and regret that. And he has quite a CV already. He clearly displays more than mere potential. And he looks yummy in a super costume later on.     


Wendy Morris as Nell's ancient bawd mother, with her daughter Rose (Elizabeth Champion, left) and Nell (Rachel Adams, right)

He shone, for instance in the (relevantly few) dance passages, in which the whole ensemble seemed to get it all right, nicely blocked, and dead together; Rachel Adams (Nell) also choreographed, and very proficiently: nothing naff. Her singing of a couple of main solo songs was as splendid as her plotting. And indeed, she has directed herself, often. The intelligence of a Director shone through her performance at every point. The great joy of the music, amassed and/or composed by Jonathan Fletcher, was that he managed to incorporate such apt Jacobean-feel sequences. At the latest they must have been Queen Anne, or early Hanoverian, but the feel was 100% Charles II. It sounded really good over the speakers, incidentally (Dan Outhwaite again). 

But there were other joyous, or accomplished performances. Emma Whitehead, a Loft Newcomer but what a find! as Nancy, the waif-like girl employed by Killigrew to cover female roles, was a bit like a cleaner asked to play Desdemona. Ravishingly funny, one of the delicious moments where a parody of a real production is played out (we surely needed, and deserved, from Swale more of Nell as an actress; perhaps the one flaw in this endlessly accomplished play. (‘Have I missed something?’ Killigrew (who finally takes her back upon Charles’s death): ‘Yes, Nell, rehearsals.’ Claire Bradwell, the crazy Lydia Lubey in the Loft’s very presentable All My Sons, as the introducer/quasi Narrator before each scene was an absolute hoot. She turned in as many subtle nuances as Glock’s king. And for a range of sidelong glances, she won hands down.

The actor I enjoyed, and admired most at the outset, was another newcomer, Justin Steer, as Charles Hart, who first spots Nell and decides to make her a Diva. He speaks phenomenally well, projecting with skill, and as an instructor, teaching her to use her diaphragm, meticulous and supportive, and in due course unhappily enamoured too, he came across as a real and believable figure. He could have played, or understudied, the King; perhaps not as perfectly and finickitily, but very presentably.    

So this was a real, palpable hit for the Loft. And the other main reason? The cues. Rapid handovers; no gaps (except in one wonderfully calibrated, distressed speech from Nell); everyone supremely quick on the uptake. I haven’t heard a play whipped along so inspirationally for some time. That’s what Swale needs, and what Michael Rolfe’s superb, firmly controlled staging needed to ensure. And my goodness, she got it. To 21-07-18

Roderic Dunnett


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