The University College Players’ production of Nell Gwynn, staged in the college’s Master’s Garden, is the perfect garden play for fans of innuendo, wit and Restoration-era scandal. Although the weather on the night I attended wasn’t ideal – the cold wind made you feel sorry for the actors – the warm charm of this play kept us all enthralled, and the fantastic ensemble (complete with a couple of incredible background musicians) kept a mood of revelry and spectacle going for hours.
Benedict Turville had the difficult role of nailing the comedy of a humorous and hedonistic King Charles. In contrast were the sincere moments of emotion concerning his affection for Nell or duties to his country, which he carried off commandingly. Another reliable source of laughs early on is the histrionic Kynaston, played by Harold Serero, who is accustomed to the female roles and threatened by Nell.
On the dramatic side, the threat of Parliament is a little one-dimensional, represented only by Alec McQuarrie as the effectively menacing Arlington – but then again this is Nell’s story, and Martha West makes sure it stays that way. Her flirtation with Hart (James West) and Charles is handled lightly and with a real sense of humour, and her growing desperation in the second act emanates from every scene – she is compelling throughout.
The script, which earned Jessica Swales the Olivier for Best New Comedy in 2016, does best when it sticks to euphemisms that seem to match the historical setting – as best delivered by the rakish king or Mati Warner’s charismatic Nancy – since some of the anachronistic modern references fell a little flat. The growing sense of danger around Nell is evoked perfectly, however, especially in a fittingly ominous scene at the end of Act 1 between herself and the scheming former mistress, Lady Castlemayne.
The costumes are colourful and well thought through, with a clear distinction between the players and the nobles. In terms of the set, too, props are used economically and cleverly to differentiate between settings, and conjure a real sense of the bustling backstage of a theatre. The beauty of the gardens themselves, as well, makes the overall experience of the play memorable, and ensures a pleasant night out.