The first scene of Nell Gwynn at The Stables Theatre, the story of how one of the first female actors made her name as one of the most famous women in history, establishes the character of its protagonist perfectly. As a shy actor who forgets his lines is heckled by a member of the audience, Nell Gwynn stands up for him, making fun of the cruel man.
Nell is not an actor, though, she is but an orange seller, wandering through the crowds at the theatre watching the plays and selling fruit to the audience.
When Charles Hart- an actor at the playhouse- hears Nell shouting at the audience member, he decides she would make a good actor and invites her up on stage. At first, she is reluctant- after all, there has only ever been one woman actor before, and it seems like an odd idea to her.
Nell isn’t the only one who thinks so - Edward Kynaston, who has previously always played the female parts, isn’t too keen on the notion either. But backed by the poet Dryden, Killigrew, the playhouse director and, most of all, Charles himself, Nell starts to learn acting.
So begins Jessica’s Swale’s colourful and moving play, which although it premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe and then transferred to the West End with Gemma Arterton in the leading role, lacks none of the warmth and feeling of the Globe version when performed at The Stables.
It’s touching - Nell leaves the stage to be the King’s mistress, and then has to decide where she belongs - but also funny and feminist, putting women in the lead.
“Wouldn’t a woman do that?” the weak, plaintive Dryden asks the assembled women at one point.
“No!” they all roar.
It’s got plenty of catchy songs, too! By Esme Needham.