It’s garden play season here in Oxford, and colleges across the university treat us to an abundance of productions amongst the flora and fauna. In the enchanting setting of their Master’s Garden, the University College Players have conjured both the extravagance and obscenity of thespian London during the reign of Charles II in their production of Jessica Swale’s 2013 comedy, Nell Gwynn.
The play follows the story of a young woman, Nell Gwynn (Martha West), who works her way up from orange-seller to leading London actress as she navigates the male-dominated world of the playhouse. Before long, Nell’s charisma and wit attracts the attention of the King (Benedict Turvill), and the two begin an intense affair. But how will the fiery Nell reconcile the demands of the King with her love for the stage?
For the garden setting, University College Players’ choice of play feels ideal. The audience immediately gets a sense of cheery informality as cast members sit amongst them in the first scene, or the play’s ‘prologue’, and what becomes apparent is director Emelye Molton’s desire to celebrate the light-hearted nature of Restoration era theatre, whilst highlighting the play-within-a-play motif that Swale’s script revisits continually. In my view, it is when focused on particulars of the thespian lifestyle that this production is most successful. The play’s best moments are the scenes which follow the inner workings of the theatre and the group dynamics amongst its eccentric cast of characters. Here Swale’s script excels, with comic relief offered in the form of cracking one-liners and petty playhouse rivalries. Such scenes are complimented by the debauched extravagance of Charles II’s court, and this back and forth between high and low makes it all too clear that, in spite of class divides, everyone loves a crude joke.
Particularly glorious to watch is Benedict Turvill as Charles II, whose comic presence stands out from the beginning. Martha West delivers a striking performance as the title character, supported in some of her most engaging scenes by James Walsh as her fellow player and mentor, Charles Hart. My personal favourite was Harold Serero as the camp Kynaston, who, with the affected prop of a pattered scarf, intensely mourns the loss of his beloved female roles when Nell joins the playhouse. Equally commendable alongside the acting was the musical addition to the production, composed by the director herself. This situated the audience in the world of the seventeenth century with a captivating whimsicality.
However, despite enchanting individual performances, what makes this production come together nicely is the fact it is a wholly collaborative company affair. I remember last term, in his final lecture as Cameron Mackintosh Visiting Professor of Contemporary Theatre at St Catz, Tom Stoppard gave a seemingly simple piece of advice to prospective theatre-producers in the audience: work with actors who are charming. This can certainly be said of Nell Gwynn. The audience can have no doubts about the joy and laughter that has gone into this production, and a play that is made with love is certainly a play well made.
Whilst at times transitions were somewhat clumsy and there was every now and then confusion with lines, such informality can be forgiven, as this is what gave the production its character. Moulton’s production celebrates emphatically the world of the theatre, and the play-within-a-play motif collapses in on itself as Nell joyously declares towards the end: ‘That’s all that’s in a play – the moment.’ And it is for these moments of spontaneity: a pack of geese flying overhead; the sound of the chapel organ playing the other side of the garden wall; or a joke about Nell (or West) coming on stage at the right time after a period of ad lib, that one should always see a play that promises to bring a smile to your face.