Review: “Nell Gwynn”

Scarlett Strallen soars as Nell Gwynn in a musical number with the company in Chicago Shakespeare’s North American premiere production of Nell Gwynn, directed by Christopher Luscombe, at the Courtyard Theater. (Photo by Liz Lauren)


Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Nov. 4
Tickets: $48-$88
Phone: 312-595-5600

Theater Critic

Jessica Swale’s 2015 Olivier Award-winning “Nell Gwynn,” which is enjoying a sparkling North American premiere at Chicago Shakespeare helmed by original director Christopher Luscombe, has all the ingredients of a first-rate romantic comedy and then some.

A Cinderella story based on history. Check. A cheeky proto-feminist heroine. Check. Plenty of court intrigue. Check. A love letter to the theater. Check. Some contemporary insider jokes. Check. Lots of song, dance, and bawdy humor. Check, check, check.

Add the topnotch cast starring British actress Scarlett Strallen as the title heroine and Timothy Edward Kane as King Charles II, the sumptuous staging featuring Hugh Durrant’s scenic and costume design augmented by Richard Jarvie’s extravagant wigs and makeup, lighting by Greg Hofmann, choreography by Amber Mak, music by Nigel Hess, and musical direction by Jermaine Hill, and it should be an unqualified winner.

But there is a catch. Swale’s play is a little like cotton candy: colorful to look at, fun while you’re consuming it, but ultimately insubstantial. Nell’s story is a series of episodes with little to connect them or confer deeper meaning, so it’s easy to leave the theater feeling less than satisfied.

The opening scene establishes Nell’s spirited, outspoken character, which doesn’t really change much despite the refinement she acquires as she progresses from rags to riches to royal mistress. We initially see her as a prostitute-turned-orange seller at the Drury Lane Theatre wittily putting down a heckler and attracting the attention of King’s Company leading actor, Charles Hart (John Tufts). He decides she has the natural talent to become an actress though she protests it doesn’t interest her, and he schools her in some of the “attitudes”–poses actors of the era assumed to express emotions—before taking her to manager Thomas Killigrew (Bret Tuomi) to propose inviting her to join the company.

The time is the Restoration following the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, and one of the first things King Charles II did in 1660 when he returned from exile in Europe to assume
the throne was re-open the theaters and allow women to play female roles on stage, which had been
forbidden before. Nell Gwynn was one of the first, and in her case, this deeply annoys Edward Kynaston (an amusing David Bedalla), the King’s Company actor who specialized in women’s parts (something that was outlawed in 1662).

A quick learner and by this time Hart’s lover, Nell soon becomes a celebrity, and her advocacy of women being better than men at playing women even seems to inspire company playwright John Dryden (Christopher Sheard), depicted here as semi-competent and deadline-challenged. Rewriting Shakespeare was popular at the time, and one of the plays he writes for her is about a magician’s daughters, Miranda and Dorinda. Listen carefully, and you’ll also hear a sly reference to Dryden’s cousin writing a book about a man who visits a country of tiny people. (That, of course, would be Jonathan Swift). There are many other quick takes to delight theater aficionados, too.

Nell catches the eye of the King at one of her performances, and he begins to pursue her diligently. She initially turns him down with her typical moxie, which naturally makes him even more determined, even though he tends to be indecisive about everything else (no surprise, since he saw his father executed). Eventually she accepts—striking a very good bargain including a house and 500 pounds a year, though she insists it’s not about the money—and they embark on an affair that lasts two decades until his death in 1685. (She died two years later, at 37, though that’s not entirely clear from the epilogue she delivers).

Swale portrays their relationship as true love, and the rapport between Strallen’s lively Nell and Kane’s deadpan droll King works well on stage, though it would be nice if we got to see more of them together in private. Their public personae tend to be one-dimensional, and she, especially, comes across as relentlessly smiling, witty, and upbeat.

She has a lot to contend with, too. Her rivals include two of the King’s many other mistresses, the politically ambitious Lady Castlemaine and the French Louise de Kérouaille (both played by Emily Gardner Xu Hall), the latter of whom she demolishes in one of the show’s wittiest song-and-dance numbers. There’s also Queen Catherine (Hollis Resnik), the King’s Portuguese wife, whose enraged rant encompasses all his women. The King’s advisor, Lord Arlington (Larry Yando) favors an alliance with the Frenchwoman and wants Nell out of the way. (Legend has it that the people hated “the Catholic whore” Louise but loved Nell, who referred to herself as “the Protestant whore.”)

Nell’s gin-sodden mother, Old Ma Gwynn (Resnik), who runs the Coal Pan Alley brothel where her daughter was raised, shows up at the actress’ fancy new digs seeking whatever she can get and stealing the silver. Nell’s main allies are her low-profile sister, Rose (Emma Ladji), who she inadvertently betrays, and her dresser/confidante, Nancy (funny Natalie West), who projects ineptitude but at one point understands French perfectly.

The large ensemble is excellent, and there’s even a Cavalier King Charles spaniel named Bentley who puts in an impossibly cute appearance as “Oliver Cromwell” when Lord Arlington, out of favor, is reduced to being royal dog walker. In sum, “Nell Gwynn” is as enjoyable as…a puppy. I just wish it had more bite.