Review: ‘Nell Gwynn’

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Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale would be an ambitious feat for any theatre company to effectively execute. Many challenging themes, characters and atmospheres meld together to fashion what is ultimately quite a complex play. However, honestly said, this production is magnificent. Tracking the life of one of England’s first and most notorious female actors, the vivacious Nell Gwynn, DUCT’s rendition of this comedy believably reflects the libertine bawdiness of Restoration theatre, making for a most thrilling experience.

This production is magnificent

In this production no actor is a weak link. Each cast member performs with professionalism and precision – they know their characters well. Furthermore, dialogue on the whole is paced and slick, which helps maintain the high energy the play really needs. Through their fitting use of heightened facial expressions, charming accents and melodramatic gestures, characters such as Nancy (Darcey Walker-Merison), Kynaston (Richard Sharpe) and Dryden (Matthew Redmond) become lovable, gleeful and highly entertaining, the actors really recognise the demands of the comedic genre.

In contrast, the snide Lady Castlemaine (Miriam Templeman) is portrayed excellently. The fire in her eyes and strident vocal delivery makes her a hateable character from the beginning, complementing pleasantly the childish arrogance of Charles II (Darrius Kudiabor-Thompson), who is passionate yet controlled. Of course, the presentation of Nell Gwynn (Daniella Pollendine) is sublime. From the moment the play begins, Pollendine masters the quick-wit and sensitivity, intelligence and confidence that runs through this character’s veins. Cast superbly for the role, Pollendine must be highly commended. Also impressive is how the entire cast effectively intertwines moments of grave seriousness alongside eye-watering comedy whilst often engaging directly with the audience, breaking the fourth wall in a self-assured and appropriate manner.

A key element of this production is music

A key element of this production is music. A cellist and violinist play wonderfully during scene transitions and accompany the actors during short, yet exciting musical numbers – praise must be given to the musical director and composer (Acacia To). Though Nell Gwynn is not a musical, these numbers submerge the audience in Restoration theatre tradition, being sung with charm and spirit, and felt natural and unforced. The harmony line blends perfectly with the melody, lifting the raucous atmosphere even higher. The decision of the director (Gabbie Sills) to have the actors play tambourines whilst dancing is very appropriate. All the actors dance and bash their tambourines precisely in unison, which makes for a polished and electric performance.

It is evident that the producer (Elvira Parr) and the creative associate (Sophie Boddington) have gone to great lengths to make the production as authentic as possible, since the costuming and set design is marvellous and really brings the 17th century to life, despite being on a low budget. The two wigs used are very impressive and a suitable stylistic choice and the creative use of oranges becomes a clever motif. The creative team really embrace the limitations of a venue which lacks features of a conventional theatre, such as wings or technical equipment. The audience can see the actors as they wait ‘offstage,’ exemplifying an unashamed departure from illusion and the absence of tech effectively indicates the period setting. This is really unique and original, making the performance feel grounded and inclusive of the audience. It seems that less really can be more.

The creative team really embrace the limitations of the venue

On the back of this, the venue is also a downside. Performing the piece at Vane Tempest in the Students’ Union feels a little awkward sometimes. The director’s decision to stage scenes behind the audience makes it difficult for some audience members to watch without straining their neck. It was also not helpful that a busy event was happening in the bar during the performance, which contributed background noise that became at times distracting. Nevertheless, the actors did counter this professionally with their stellar performances – they really deserve a better venue.

Along the same line, this cast deserve a full house for their next, and final performance tonight. The production brims with energy and is hilarious throughout. It is confident, smooth and vibrant, making the audience feel refreshed and thoroughly entertained by the end. DUCT’s theatre is compelling and truly alive.

Image by DUCT

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