Every once in a while, it’s nice to take a break from the big, exciting shows that catch most of the public’s attention on a theatre’s main stage, and catch some new work in a much smaller venue. This is just what I did on my most recent trip to York Theatre Royal’s Studio space, which is currently playing host to Steve Trafford’s new comedy The Restoration of Nell Gwyn, which also contains songs by composer Henry Purcell.
In case you don’t know, Nell Gwyn was one of the first English actresses to appear on stage in the seventeenth century, which was very much a male-dominated society. In addition to this she was also King Charles II’s mistress, bringing her even more attention. The Restoration of Nell Gwyn takes place towards the end of Charles II’s reign, with Nell (played by Elizabeth Mansfield) continuously worrying about what will happen to her once he finally draws his last breath. She is accompanied by her servant Margery, played by Angela Curran, who provides much of the humour in the piece and completes the pair of this witty two-hander.
The two actresses portray their characters incredibly well, and this truly does transport the audience to a time very different from our own. They execute Trafford’s witty and comedic dialogue very well too, occasionally having the audience in stitches of laughter. The comedy is occasionally broken up by Nell’s musical interludes, in which she plays some of Purcell’s songs in order to create an isolated atmosphere that reminds the audience of the time they’ve been taken to. The two actresses also build rapport with the audience impressively, with their direct address being welcomed in the intimate performance space. The space is neatly designed, with only a couple of chairs and a spiralling backlit cloth that doesn’t draw the attention away from the brilliant characters, allowing the audience to focus properly on them and the time period they’re conveying.
The Restoration of Nell Gwyn is an excellent study of both characters and relationships, and is indeed fascinating. But if you’re wanting a show that has an engaging plot to latch onto, then I’d advise you to look elsewhere. The emphasis is more on the actual personalities rather than the plot, which simply affects the emotional states of both of the characters rather than engages the audience.
Despite this, The Restoration of Nell Gwyn is still a brilliant exploration of character, and offers something a little bit different to your everyday bit of theatre. It’s new and fresh, and a captivating glimpse into a world very different from our own.
The Restoration of Nell Gwyn is playing at the York Theatre Royal until 25 October. For more information and tickets, see the York Theatre Royal website.
Photo by Anthony Robling.