Nell Gwynn Review by Lance Bassett

Never ceasing to be amazed by Banbury Cross Players’ eclectic choice of plays, I approached their latest production of Nell Gwynn with some trepidation. I had never heard of the piece and apart from the publicity blurb describing ‘A bawdy romp’ I was clueless.

Of course I needn’t have worried, BCP came through again with a professional, competent evening’s entertainment on a very cold winter’s night at The Mill.

Playing to a first night full house, the play, written by Jessica Swale combines almost schoolboy humour in parts with the more serious issues of the day including resisting the resurgence of Roman Catholicism, English/French relations and women’s role in society. Certainly enough to be going on with.

The production was directed by Clare Lester and opens with crowd players mingling in the audience, setting the scene for the rehearsal of a play on stage written by John Dryden (Jem Turner) who was shamefully treated throughout as a plagiarising twit. A bit naughty I thought.

Enter the leading actor, Charles Hart, played with some aplomb I may say by the talented Steve Ramsden. He offers the comely Nell of the title a few lessons in acting and she decides a life treading the boards is the one for her. From this point on she, being the first woman on the English stage, ascends swiftly to the pinnacle of her profession. This miffs one Edward Kynaston who hitherto had cornered the market in playing ladies on stage. BCP veteran Nik Lester acted out this part so well I heard one member of the audience comment he would never look at Nik in the same light again, praise indeed.

Nell soon catches the roving eye of the King, and he sets about persuading the reformed lady of the night to become his mistress.

Joanne Sammons portrayed Nell so convincingly you could quite understand why the King offered to pay her £500 a year to shack up with him.

As King Charles II, Ian Nutt rose to the part shall we say, looking, sounding and acting totally realistically in the role of the Merry Monarch we all love.

As choreographer, Sharon Green moved her nineteen strong cast around with some memorable moves, especially the musical numbers, and the clever set, designed by Richard Ashby with Nik & Clare Lester, was a split stage simply garnished and enhanced by the lighting plot from John Hicks and Linda Shaw.

The second act was different altogether. The first half of Nell Gwynn consisted of mirth, bawdy songs and double entendre. However in Act 2 dark forces descended and more serious issues abounded. Gone was the pleasure seeking King, he was now addressing foreign policy and the religious issues of the time.

Major parts included many monologues, none so impressive as Chas giving his ‘King’s Speech’ in which, dressed in full regalia including Crown, Orb & Sceptre, Ian was more deserving of theatrical acclaim than the film of the same name.

Katy Roberts played Charles’ French mistress Louise de Keroualle and if Katy isn’t fluent in French, she fooled me.

BCP are on top of their game with Nell Gwynn. Costumes, lighting and a brilliant accompanying Harpsichord player added to the enjoyment of the evening.

Now I always try to balance a rave review with some, if minor, negative comment, but try as I might I can’t, save to say it’s getting difficult to park at The Mill.

Lance Bassett
February 2020