Melissa Blease reviews Olivier award-winning Nell Gwynn, on at Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 29 April

Astutely witty, intelligently silly and deliciously camp, the English Touring Theatre’s production of Nell Gwynn (directed by the inimitably imaginative Christopher Luscombe) is a graciously benevolent romp around the biography of King Charles II’s famed mistress… and a lush, extravagant feast for the senses.

But my oh my, there was far more to the former orange-seller’s tale than folklore may have us believe – and writer Jessica Swale has pushed Nell’s back-story to the forefront of the action.

It’s easy to say that Nell Gwynn used her womanly wiles, assets and charms to work her way up and out of London’s back street slums to a suite in the royal palace (and her very own life-long residence on Pall Mall – a gift from her beloved King). But before all that, it was her innate sense of theatricality, fierce determination and vivacious personality that caught the eye of Thomas Killigrew, the English dramatist and impressario who first put Nell centre-stage in his repertory productions that were so popular with the upper-crusties of the time.

But it took a very strong woman indeed to swim against the political and social tides of the era (not least, the traditional perceptions of women at the time; “an actor-ess? How very shocking!”) without being washed up all bedraggled on the social-status equivalent of an effluent-ridden beach.

But while Swale’s tale doesn’t hold back on pushing Nell’s protofeminist credentials to the fore, neither does it take the earnest, humourless route to altering perceptions of a woman best known for merely being a ‘mistress’. There’s arch sensitivity, a charming lightness of touch and keen attention to detail apparent in every aspect of this production, from the sumptuous costumes to the fast-moving script, impeccable choreography and superb cameo performances from key characters (Esh Alladi as Edward Kynaston – “The Actor Who Plays Women’s Parts” – is a particular delight, and his explanation of the language of the fan a notable highlight moment).

Meanwhile, an abundance of multi-layered detail gives the story depth and nuance, and an insight into the behind-the-scenes machinations of theatre world in the early Restoration era adds further fascinating substance.

Throughout it all, Laura Pitt-Pulford is an utterly delectable Nell – feisty, sexy, brave and effervescent. But she’s in no way portraying a one-dimensional, hard-nosed good time girl – when her status as the King’s number one cohort is threatened by the arrival of Charles’ next mistress-in-line (there were plenty, by the way) Louise de Kerouaille, both her hostility towards any notion of threat and her resolve to keep her own place in the palace pecking order is palpable; when Charles dies, her grief is almost graphic.

In many ways, Nell Gwynn’s story is a classic rags-to-riches fable wherein an ambitious kid from a meagre background and little but a life of grime to look forward to sets herself on a very different trajectory – but as we’ve established, that’s not all she was about. As she belts out in the chorus of the play’s most memorable musical interlude, “I can dance and I can sing…and I can do the t’other thing” – nudge nudge, wink wink, and yes indeed, I’m sure she could. But in Nell’s case, the ‘t’other thing’ of which she sang amounted to far more than a roll in the shrubbery with a king whose palace was once home to 29 spaniels. If Nell was around today, I reckon she’d be the UK’s first lady in her own right.

Visit: theatreroyal.org.uk

Main image: Tristram Kenton