Nell Gwyn: An Epilogue is a sparkling, frequently funny, and thoroughly bawdy romp that brings the seventeenth century alive – no mean feat when you’re performing in a hotel function room. It’s a captivating and unusual performance, with Lucy Formby starring as one of the most famous royal mistresses, the witty orange-seller and actress Nell Gwyn.
Nell plays up to the audience as they hear snippets of her life, beginning by prancing round the stage demanding to know if people like her legs. She’s performing the role of the chaste St Catherine on stage, and is not happy about being cast as a saint – particularly when her lover Charles II is coming to the performance. It’s a theme that she returns to at intervals, at one point begging an unsuspecting Dryden, who’s actually just a member of the audience, to write her something witty instead. Other topics covered include her former lover Charles Hart, the contrast between herself and the Queen, and her rival Moll Davies (who she worries has “out Nellied me”).
There’s a feminist undertone as she rebels against passive stage roles where she’s either dead, naked, or generally tragic. One of the strengths of the play is that beneath the mischievous audience interaction and jokes about her “paps” and “cunny”, the writing still gives Nell depth as she dreams of making the leap from whore to bona fide mistress. It’s a brave piece with Lucy Formby gamely rising to the challenge of playing the charming exhibitionist – a particular triumph in such a small and intimate space.
For some, the use of period language may be an issue. It does take a little concentration to follow, but for me it really added to the colour of the piece. The set is non-existent – but driven by the sheer exuberance of Lucy Formby’s Nell, and a good costume, this manages not be an issue. Indeed, it focuses attention on the words and acting; entirely appropriate for someone who made a career out of attracting attention.
It was hard to resist Nell’s earthy charm and the audience clearly relished the performance. Nell Gwyn as created by Laura Ingram is lively, sometimes racy, but always enjoyable. This is no mere tart-with-a-heart piece – she’s got a brain too.