When Charles II, lying on his deathbed, uttered the words “let not poor Nellie starve”, he can hardly have imagined that his beloved mistress would be so in vogue 331 years later. But Nell Gwyn, that name that sits so elusively on the edge of our collective consciousness, is currently undergoing something of her own restoration, with two plays running concurrently about her at present.
The Globe’s celebrated production of Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn transfers to the Apollo next week, whilst Steve Trafford’s The Restoration of Nell Gwyn is currently running at Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre. Trafford’s play, a period two-hander directed by Damian Cruden, features Elizabeth Mansfield as a faded Nell and Angela Curran as her bawdy northern maid Margery – two meaty female roles that both sink their teeth into with relish
The king lies dying in his palace at Whitehall, surrounded by a gaggle of doctors, disguised mistresses and illegitimate children. His beloved Nell, however, sits twiddling her thumbs in her Pall Mall parlour; accompanied only by her maid, she frets about her royal lover, her financial position and her fate when Charles’s staunchly Catholic brother James takes to the throne.
As Nell and Margery wait, their conversation meanders up and down memory lane. At its best, Trafford’s rich, funny dialogue gently evokes London shortly after the Restoration – a world of riotous taverns, heaving brothels and the ever-present threat of plague. At its worst, it is glaringly over-written, crammed full of contemporary references in a needless attempt to emphasise its authenticity.
Midway through the second half, an argument over Margery’s secret Republican sympathies erupts between mistress and maid, and Trafford’s writing finds a vibrant immediacy that it sorely lacked before. Trafford uses this fresh urgency to draw pertinent parallels between Nell Gwyn’s world and ours. “Those clods at Westminster?”, scoffs Nell. “The thickest clutch of chickens ever put together, in a single chamber, to peck at one another!” Cue self-satisfied chuckles from the audience.
Amongst all this there is a note of sadness, however, at the lack of control these women exercise over their own lives. They are gregarious women in a world of men, whose laws they obey and whose schedules they stick to. They live at the beck and call of others.
Both Mansfield and Curran offer strong performances. Curran’s Margery, who also narrates the play, is every inch the crude but caring confidante she should be. She has a real gift for storytelling and her prologue and epilogue, written in verse, are two of the play’s finest, most profound moments. Mansfield is also convincing as the ageing Nell. She is constantly performing, singing, dancing and playing the lute, finding a tired vitality throughout that speaks volumes about her full and varied life. There is a real sense of history between the two characters as well, who bounce off each other with tangible chemistry in both jest and anger.
Richard Aylwin’s sparse set – two chairs, a few candles and a great semi-transparent sash hanging from the ceiling – somehow manages to evoke a great deal of seventeenth century ornament. The regular musical interludes, featuring the hauntingly beautiful music of Henry Purcell, do similarly, creating a thick, stirring atmosphere.
The Restoration Of Nell Gwyn is far from a spectacular play, but it is an intriguing, amusing and intimate portrait of two extraordinary women that delights at times and engages throughout.
The Restoration Of Nell Gwyn is playing at the Park Theatre until 20 February. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.