This one-woman show presents Nell Gwyn, mistress of King Charles II, as she regales the audience with her lot in life – actor, lover and whore. Since catching the King's attention, she reconsiders her roles on-stage and off, and the relationship between the two.
Through Formby's performance, Nell provocatively asserts her desire to exist as not merely a role in a play, but to be portrayed as someone multi-dimensional, celebrating physicality, wit and vibrancy.
She informs us that the she and the King have not done the deed since she last played Saint Catherine, and clearly the saintliness is stifling her sex life, and her means of getting the role she most covets: the aspirational 'mistress.' Nell, a proto-feminist, she claims her title of 'whore' with honesty and pride, not wanting to be typecast in the role of a dead saint, tragic and chaste, and instead projecting a hypersexuality.
Does Nell represent an example of the poor options available to women in 17th Century England, in that they must play the part of whore or saint, with nothing in between? Or does Nell's successes illuminate just how far she has come from being an 'orange wench', uncovering previously unconsidered freedoms? Furthermore, has society changed all that much, when what is apparently most coveted in the consort of today's heir is her bum and her hair?
Throughout the play, Nell continually throws out bawdy and saucy asides, referring to her 'cunny,' her 'paps,' and an audience member's member. Although the attempt to own the smuttiness and give it a female perspective is refreshing, its relentlessness becomes quite tiresome through the entire length of the play, which, as a result, seems overlong.
In the tiny and intimate venue, the in-the-round staging with just one row of seats insists that the audience becomes part of the show, having nowhere to hide. Nell talks to, sits next to, sits on, fondles and shanghais the audience, asking questions (which fortunately don't require answers) and assigning supporting roles.
As Nell, Lucy Formby makes the most of the space, continually circling in almost predatory fashion, whether explicitly flirting or nudging and winking and delighting in double entendres. Although this creates a dynamic, albeit slightly uncomfortable air, its circuitry nature, alongside the lack of any real progression of character or plot, contribute to a sense of stasis and repetition, so that much of the piece blurs together.
Through Formby's performance, Nell provocatively asserts her desire to exist as not merely a role in a play, but to be portrayed as someone multi-dimensional, celebrating physicality, wit and vibrancy. However, whilst energetic, there is no doubt throughout the play that what confronts the audience is a performance, not a person. Still, it is a fun performance, with plenty of sass, vim, vigour and quim.