Stoke Rep Players
Nell Gwynn is currently delighting audiences at the Stoke Rep and, if you happen to be after an utterly entertaining night out, then this is without doubt the place to be. This play, penned by British playwright Jessica Swale, who deservedly won the Best New Comedy Olivier Award in 2016, is a 5 star hit.
Director, David Bryan, has triumphed with a joyous production, staged with hilarity, cleverness and with a warmth that will capture and draw you in whether you are a theatre veteran or a newcomer. It is a fast-paced play about theatrics, a love affair, the relationship between stage and audience and in conclusion results in a hilarious and colourful celebration of historical theatre life.
Set in the 1600s, King Charles II (Tom Waldron), has decreed that women may appear on the English stage for the first time. Charles Hart (Leo Capernaros), a leading actor at the theatre, spots Nell’s (Shelley Rivers) potential as an actress. With guidance and lessons from the heart by Hart, Nell, a former prostitute from London’s Cheapside, is soon flaunting her charm, beauty and assets on the main stage. She catches the King’s eye and soon after an amorous adventure ensues between actress and monarch.
Shelley Rivers as Nell seizes the part with beauty, conviction and the right amount of mischievous charm, delivering bawdy one-liners and hilarious songs to perfection, playing out the more serious and emotional scenes with gripping confidence. Her beautiful singing voice is put to the test, sometimes in cappella, and she sails through without falter.
She is joined on stage by a truly brilliant, all singing all dancing cast that includes the glorious Tom Waldron as the King, John Wicks as the baffled playwright, Ian Birkin as the impassioned director, Caroline Wicks as Nell’s very funny and full-of-character dresser and Leo Capernaros as the dashing actor, Charles Hart.
With so much talent on stage I felt spoiled - but I have to confess I was absolutely glued to Philip Jackson playing Edward Kynaston, whose very stage presence was reminiscent of a younger Rowan Atkinson. I was delighted by his very funny rant ‘no woman can play a woman as well as I can play a woman' and his was a perfect casting as his comedy timing, expressions and unquestionably brilliant performance proved.
Superb portrayals by all; Georgina Goodchild (Rose Gwynn), Dawn Huxley (Old Ma Gwynn/Queen Catherine), Angela Dale (Lady Castlemaine/Louise de Keroualle), Peter Taylor (William/Ensemble), Steven K Beattie (Lord Arlington) and Joe Wood (Ned Spiggett). Dawn Huxley’s performance of Old Ma Gwynn was particularly notable, as was Steven K Beattie’s wonderful Lord Arlington, but with actors of such talent and a show of such high standard I could bullet point an endless list of favourite moments that would stretch from here to London – so it would be better to witness this for yourself.
With a gorgeous set of drapes, red and gold half-circle of arches and royal box of the King’s auditorium, this production is heavily and luxuriously costumed by the RSC and excellently wigged. The simple charm of two musicians (Richard Foxcroft and Jane Duff) playing varying sizes of acoustic recorders is surprisingly sufficient to support the whole show, even for the big song and dance numbers, yet it does so and it creates the perfect soundscape for the era.
With excellent tech by Malcolm Rushton and Mike Adams, engaging choreography by Julie Wood and competent musical direction by Lorraine Hunter, the Stoke Rep Players have a winning team who have pulled out all the stops to ensure this show is as uplifting as it is entertaining.
A great show results in a happy audience and this audience left with a happy smile on their faces celebrating an evening well spent. Stirling!
Runs to 16 June.
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