Rags to riches — most have heard the saying and wished they were the lucky person whose life in poverty transforms to one of wealth and newfound happiness. But this story isn’t just seen in children’s fairy tales. In British playwright Jessica Swale’s comedy “Nell Gwynn,” the title character, Nell, is that lucky person.
Nell (Scarlett Strallen) is a young, poor girl in 17th Century England who makes a living selling oranges to theatre patrons. Her quick wit and beauty captures the attention of the theatre’s leading man and she gets a chance to be one of the first women on the stage.
That man, Charles Hart (John Tufts), the company’s lead actor, teaches Nell the art of acting and they soon fall in love. She joins the company acting alongside Hart and becomes the first woman in the theatre to play the female lead — a spot usually reserved for men during that era.
The concept of women performing in theater at the time was unconventional; it was customary for men to play the male and female roles in plays. This began to change during the Restoration period in England. By joining the company, Nell challenged the traditional roles of a woman in the theatre, becoming a feminist icon and connecting the story to modern day.
As her acting career takes off, Nell captures not only the hearts of the audience but also that of King Charles II. Despite turning down his advances at first, Nell becomes the King’s mistress, leaving Hart behind. From there, Nell’s story follows the traditional Cinderella-esque plot line.
Though most won’t recognize her name, Nell Gwynn is a historical figure from England’s Restoration period. Samuel Pepys, chief secretary to the admiralty under King Charles II, nicknamed her “pretty, witty Nell” — a description which matched her character in this play.
Swale and director Christopher Luscombe made Nell a lovable character with a witty personality. In conjunction with music by Nigel Hess, they created a funny, light-hearted and engaging production.
Strallen, whose looks and charm measured up to that of the tale of the historical figure, put on a wonderful performance. Strallen portrayed Nell as comical and animated which, combined with the script and the performance of other actors, created an exuberant comedy.
Despite suiting Nell’s character, the humor was too goofy at times and took away from the historical account. This left little room for character development.
Prior to seeing the performance, Nell seemed like a strong, feminist character which would’ve tied in well with both her historic and modern significance. However, in the play, Nell’s whimsical spirit took away any potential for serious character development, making it difficult to take her seriously or empathize with her even after the death of King Charles II.
The majority of the characters were static and only added to the play’s comedic aspects. The most profound character was Nell’s sister, Rose (Emma Ladji). Rose was one of the few characters who had a variety of attitudes and emotions, allowing the audience to empathize with her.
“Nell Gwynn” was structured in a way which would’ve allowed for Nell to be a symbol of protofeminism. This term was used to describe those who lived at a time when the term “feminism” was not known, but a person’s actions supported modern feminist ideas. Strallen ultimately missed the mark. The play was entertaining, but knowing there was room for growth was disappointing.
For those who enjoy plays with complex stories and character growth, “Nell Gwynn” might not be the ideal theater experience, but it’s worth a trip to Navy Pier for an enjoyable night out. Following its successful 2015 debut in London, “Nell Gwynn’s” North American premiere was at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre Sept. 20 and will run until Nov. 4.