This rollicking comedy is – like her basket of fruits – sweet, juicy with a dash of tart. It is equal parts Restoration drama, Blackadder and Carry On caper.
Jessica Swale’s 2015 play views Nell through a contemporary lens. She becomes a feminist icon in a thoroughly engaging piece that is also about theatre itself and the place of women in it.
Set in the 1660s, when England’s theatres – closed under the Puritan Oliver Cromwell – have just reopened and the monarchy restored.
The new king Charles II has allowed women to appear on stage for the first time.
Drury Lane’s wisecracking fruit-seller is the right woman and the right time. “Pretty, witty Nell”, as diarist Samuel Pepys called her, is about to move from heckling from the aisles to centrestage in an all-male world.
It is a play that hangs off the title role. And Bishanyia Vincent is superb, filling our formidable heroine with vitality, determination and cheek.
“Ï can dance, I can sing, I can do the other thing.” Indeed she can and more.
Vincent as Nell is at least a match for backstage theatre politics as she is for the king and his bevvy of aristocratic mistresses.
As Nell proves a smash with audiences more parts must be created for her. There are some pointed exchanges as she demands of playwright John Dryden (Steve Corner) more substantial roles for women. “We are as knotty and tangly as you are,” she tells him.
Such exchanges lift the play from mere rags to riches – bawdy house to king’s boudoir – romp in this assured production directed by Deborah Jones.
Lloyd Allison-Young’s bewigged King Charles, whose love for Nell feels real, is no mere randy fop (although there are plenty of saucy sausage gags). He is astute enough to realise his perilous political position.
The piece wears its history lightly and takes liberties Gwynn’s tale. (Her theatrical career was long over by the time the King died). So it is more inspired by her story than bio-play.
There are fine performances in this large cast of 16, not least Steven Ljubovic as the former “leading lady” who resists being sidelined and Rupert Reid charismatic as Charles Hart who first recognises Nell’s talent.
This joyous production is a celebration of the fleeting magic of theatre. As Nell tells Charles: “Just in that moment we’re all there, us and the crowd and it’s all that exists … And then it’s gone.”
Catch it while you can.