Nell Gwynn

Loft Theatre, Leamington, until July 21

Reviewer: Peter McGarry

Just as the famous orange-seller wench weaved her way through Restoration theatre society to reach royal heights, so actress Rachel Adams sweeps all before her in this energetic Loft production.

Hers is a performance to savour, delivered with a bawdy sense of mischief and cheeky sex appeal which are underscored by some striking moments of character analysis. And it’s no small achievement given that Ms Adams and director Michael Rolfe are tasked with holding together a veritable kaleidoscope of mix-and-match theatricality.

Writer Jessica Swale chose to toss everything into the melting-pot, from clownish comedy to historical drama, tragedy, politics, pantomime, Carry On quips, songs and dancing. What emerges here is something of a ragbag of goodies and not-so-goodies.

The play hits its best moments in more intense dramatic scenes between Nell and her kingly conquest Charles II, played with gathering assurance by Sean Glock after too much Hugh Grant-type frippery early on. The relationship develops strongly even though it doesn’t have time to fully develop its touching aspects.

Early musical routines are notably indifferent and thankfully do not recur, and the purported comedy efforts surrounding the staging of plays suffer the misfortune of not being funny. They do, however, allow for a full-blooded portrayal by Michael Rayns as the ill-used playwright John Dryden, here suffering for his art.

Hitting the right sense of spirit also are Safia Lamrani as a fiery and ferocious Queen Catherine and Wendy Morris in an all-too-brief appearance as Nell’s sorry old harridan of a mum, tragi-comic playing to perfection.

Energy is certainly the keynote throughout, a factor deliberately implanted by the writer. The piece, however, lacks the style and subtlety of Shakespeare in Love, which trod similar ground with historical figures.

But Rachel Adams and Nell are there for us, stage stalwarts indeed.

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