Nell Gwynn is the true story of an orange seller in 17th Century London who heckles actors on the stage at the Drury Lane Theatre, only to have one of them (Charles Hart, played by Emmett Lee Stang) pull her up on stage. Hart then proceeds to give her acting lessons and turn her into one of the first ever female actors on an English stage.
The men of the acting company are shocked by the idea of women on stage, but when they hear of another theatre nearby with a woman playing Desdemona, they have no choice but to put Nell Gwynn (Charlotte Wright) in a play. Kynaston, an actor (Brian Hinson) remarks that the theatre should be for pretending, and having real women is a step too far: “Who’d go to the theatre to see real people saying real things about real life?”
But go they did. With Nell’s success she soon catches the eye of King Charles II (Marc LeBlanc), a childish, petty King who cares only for his mistresses and his spaniels. LeBlanc plays Charles with grace and wit. He left me loving a character that I expected to hate.
Nell Gwynn is full of songs and laughter and kept me smiling all night.
A feminist story is a good one to tell today, but United Players’ production, under the direction of Adam Henderson, struggles a bit. Period plays are hard to do on a small budget. Still, the resulting play is fun, has moments of sincerity, and delightful songs.
Adam Henderson’s direction is cheesy for the most part. The play is crowded with goofy trumpeting, people selling “chocolate from the future”, and a rhyming pre-show speech that was not necessary. A certain degree of silliness is to be expected from a comedy (this one surely delivered on the classic Restoration era rudeness), but too many tropes and goofy comments overloaded a story that could have had a deeper level.
Charlotte Wright’s Nell was sassy and fun, and her voice carried all the songs well. However, I can’t help but think that I never really saw the love story come through. Wright’s Nell seemed only to have one “attitude”, as the actors describe in the play: pushy. There could have been a lot more depth to Nell, which hopefully Wright will develop more as she settles into the run.
Another challenge of a play set in England is the array of accents that make their way onto the stage. Some actors managed to keep up very consistent accents, while others struggled to have one at all. That, again, is something that can be forgiven in a company of this size.
A couple more highlights include David C. Jones as Killigrew, the manager of the theatre. His cynical character was full of laughs – and not just because of how awkward his wig looks. Mattie Shisko thrived as Nancy, the theatre seamstress. Her small but dynamic role allowed her some hilarious featured moments.
Nell Gwynn only premiered at the Globe Theatre in 2015, and as far as I know it hasn’t been done yet in B.C. United Players’ production may not be the most polished piece they’ve ever produced, but it was a risk to put on and one they should be proud of taking.
If you’re looking for a fun show full of music, and you’re willing to overlook a few costume issues and awkward goofs, head to Nell Gwynn.
Nell Gwynn plays at the Jericho Arts Centre from June 1-24, 2018. Tickets and more information here.
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