The Orange Seller of Drury Lane

The Kensington Swan Season of Nell Gwynn by Jessica Swale
Auckland Theatre Company, ASB Waterfront Theatre
Until August 30

It is 1667, and the new monarch, King Charles II is on the throne, his father, Charles I having lost his head in the English Civil War. England has been ruled by the Puritans led by the Cromwells for the past 20 years and theatres have been banned for most of that time.

King Charles has decreed that for the first time in England, women will be allowed to appear on stage. Charles Hart, a leading actor, encounters a young street merchant, Nell Gwynn, and sees her potential as a performer. The Cheapside orange seller uses her wit, beauty, and performance skills to entertain the masses and eventually the king himself and she takes the place of his other mistress, Lady Castlemaine.

This is a time of political and social change for theatre, the monarchy as well as Nell and Jessica Swale’s play Nell Gwynn brings all this to life with song and dance and a fine script. It looks at the new forms of acting, new approaches to writing for the theatre and changing attitudes to women.

The play has had many sellout seasons in the UK and won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy last year.

At times, it seems like a bawdy remake of a 17th century play, at other times like a 21st century pastiche.

The clever sets designed by Rachael Walker include a flimsy curtain that separates the actors from the audience at the King’s Company Theatre, a large backdrop of an etching of a London street and the cool interior of Charles’s palace which features contemporary furniture and a Jeff Koons sculpture.

Claire Chitham’s Nell is a great mix of the bawdy, the perceptive and the witty, with a slight touch of the feminist. She is on stage for most of the play and she leads the cast with some clever routines, all the time trying to balance acting, the king's bedroom and her family commitments in her battles with lovers and royalty.

Nell’s mentor, Charles Hart, played by Andrew Grainger, emanates all the physicality and theatricality of the true thespian, striding and gesticulating with an occasionally exposed sentimentality.

Byron Coll as the cross-gender actor Edward Kynaston provides a comic part but also introduces the arguments in favour of men being more competent at playing female roles than women themselves.

Tim Balme’s Charles II is suitably regal while attempting to balance his relationships between a wife and a couple of mistresses.

Hera Dunleavey and Alison Bruce play various roles including the Queen and mistresses with panache and enthusiasm.

Mark Hadlow shows off his skills by playing scheming Lord Arlington and the bumbling John Dryden as well as doing a turn on the bugle.

Elizabeth Whiting has designed costumes that are derived from the common dress of the 16th century as well as contemporary dress, with a few stylistic features from the centuries in between. Nell and her female friends seem appropriately attired for life on the streets of 17th century London while Mark Hadlow, as Arlington, could pass for a minister stepping out from Whitehall. King Charles II is dressed in a muted version of what he might have worn. However, for John Dryden, Whiting appears to have resorted to scavenging from the Salvation Army shop.

While the play is about the love affair between Charles and Nell director Colin McColl has also ensured it is also about the way in which life and theatre are intermingled. It is also about the way that theatre attempts to create worlds which are relevant and about the illusion, the craft of theatre and the lives of theatre people.