Jennifer Swale's Nell Gwynn is a combination of rags-to-riches-to uncertainty adventure, costume drama, biographical entertainment or pop history, retro-restoration comedy, and yet part social commentary. She has wanted a piece of all those genres and perhaps others as well, though it's a moot point whether she's spread herself a little too thinly. But Banbury Cross Players have, to their great credit, gone for a piece demanding of time, personnel and money, when something much more modest would have been the easier option.
An orange seller/sex worker rises through the ranks, from brothel upbringing to theatre groundling, to member of the King's Company theatre, and thence, Charles II's roving eye having landed on her fresh and irreverent charms, her insertion into the King's bed to the consternation of Queen and parcel of mistresses, not to mention the shock of her pals. This is a cautionary tale about the cult of celebrity that also examines the exercise of (male) power by an autocrat, however superficially mild-mannered; and how a woman irrupts into that syndrome. But the theme that most engaged me was announced by the reiterated gibes at Nell of: 'you were a whore'. The sex worker is viewed as a lower order of being, to be patronised if not treated with cruel contempt as a pariah.
Director Clare Lester has had the happy thought of having a few of her cast mingle with the audience before curtain-up, so we felt we were street bystanders at a corner of Drury Lane. Following Nell on her picaresque journey to the top, our eyes are dazzled by the smart set (Richard Ashby and Messrs Lester) of chequerboard floor, set boards topped by a royal coat-of-arms and drapes in teal and crimson; by the lavish costumes (Jane Shanahan) and lighting (John Hicks/Linda Shaw), often in warm colours and especially attractive right at the end, for Nell's epilogue. Nigel Hess' music, capably played on keyboard harspichord by Kieron Galliard, combined with ensemble songs and dances to convey joie de vivre overlying the angst that touches a number of the characters.
Clare Lester has got her cast moving, avoiding the pitfall of stasis, and employing the full depth of both stage and audience space. She is rewarded by some persuasive performances. Nik Lester's Kynaston, a sort of Dame Durden from Babes in the Wood, now displaced by Nell for the playing of female rôles, is a nice study in fussy waspishness, and Jem Turner makes of the playwright Dryden a plausibly anguished beacon of sense in a madcap profession. I also enjoyed the bustling presences of Nell's sister and her dresser, from Ann Domoney and Hilary Beaton respectively. There were a number of potentially enjoyable performances elsewhere, including of course from Joanne Sammons' Nell, who performed well her long and tricky part and came on quite strongly in the second half.
However, in many cases, I just felt the presence of a handbrake holding the actors back. Thus, for instance, the actors' talent in both Mark Walden's theatre manager Killigrew and Steve Ramsden's Hart was obvious, but had they moved on from something a little bland to an altogether broader interpretation, the energy level would have risen. Ian Nutt's King Charles showed the way: in peach-coloured coat, buckle shoes and shocking pink feather, this was a rational libertine rather than a thoughtlessly lascivious rascal. Ian showed us both the strong will of His Majesty and his affectionate playfulness, while suggesting something edgy or even cruel lurking below. This was first-rate acting.