Joy, gaiety and a complete absence of complicated women. Such a holy trinity is what King Charles II declares it takes to get him into the royal box of the seventeenth century playhouse that looms over the lushly lit stage in Jessica Swale's Olivier Award winning historical romp. More fool him, as by this time a star has already been born in the form of wise-cracking orange seller Nell. Lured from heckling in the cheap seats, Nell takes the stage herself in a theatre scene reinvented for a new age. Old-school traditionalists, meanwhile, are suitably scandalised in this touring version of Christopher Luscombe's lavish production, first seen at Shakespeare's Globe and revived here by English Touring Theatre.
What follows is a gorgeously realised yarn that is part costume drama, part rom-com and part theatrical in-joke laced with sit-com styled one-liners worthy of Blackadder. As the most regal of stage-door Johnnies in search of a bit of rough, Ben Righton's Charles gets more than he bargained for with Nell, played with heady brio by Laura Pitt-Pulford. With Nell living the high life, the story of an ambitious working-class woman who challenges the establishment that courts her unfolds before she's left to her own devices once more.
Swale may take from real-life events in an exquisitely turned out affair, but this is the stuff of a million back-stage Hollywood rags to riches melodramas. When Nell is temporarily usurped by Charles' French mistress just as she muscled in on Lady Castlemaine's territory, a bumpy ride is guaranteed for all. With some timely sparring to be had on the state of Europe, Swale has dreamt up a piece of serious fun that is pure emancipated joy.
The Herald, April 20th 2017