BWW Review: NELL GWYNN shows 17th Century humor and heart at Synchronicty Theatre
Atlanta's Synchronicity Theatre opens its 21st Season with Jessica Swale's Nell Gwynn, a comedy based on the true story of an orange vendor who becomes one of the most celebrated actresses in 17th Century London - and King Charles II's mistress. The play follows Nell from rags to riches, as she transforms from a bawdy orange seller on the street to a revered actress, who was ahead of her time during an era where it was a novelty to see women grace the stage. Accompanied by friends, theatre colleagues, and her lover the King, Nell finds herself ascending to high society while trying to forget her meager background. The cast includes Courtney Moors as Nell, Eugene H. Russell as Charles Hart, Robert Shaw-Smith as King Charles accompanied by a talented ensemble.
Labeled as a comedy, this show definitely delivers on the humor but also includes several dramatic portions. As usual with Synchronicity productions, the audience feels entirely transported into 17th century London, as Nell and her friend Rose begin the production by selling oranges to the actual audience. After Nell is summoned to the stage by Charles Hart, a famous stage actor with the King's Company, she is curious but reluctant to learn more about acting. When the theatre staff (including notable performances by Doyle Reynolds, Jeff Hathcoat, J.L. Reed, Brandon Patrick and Hannah Church) meets to discuss their latest production, the groundbreaking idea of casting a woman is discussed: for at the time, women were forbidden from the stage, and both men's and women's roles were played by male actors. Nell is cast and becomes a sensation, catching the eye of the theatre's patron, King Charles. As Nell accepts an offer to become Charles' mistress, she struggles to straddle the two drastically different worlds that she has come to know.
A few aspects of this production stand out as particularly noteworthy. Above all else, the versatility and range of the cast is quite astounding, with a few actors transitioning between multiple characters. I was very impressed at the flawless dialect expertise that was shown by every member of the cast, who maintained perfect accents throughout the entirety of the show. The show included a few musical elements, which I also thought complemented the dialogue nicely. I was also quite impressed with the many robust and intricate costumes, particularly the royal fabric choices for King Charles and the beautiful gowns that Nell wears following her ascent to royal-adjacent status.
The biggest issue that I found after seeing this play doesn't have anything do to with the performances given, but rather the material itself. With a run time of over 2 and a half hours which rivals a full-length musical, I found the play entirely too long. There were multiple scenes that I felt could have been done away with, without sacrificing any of the plot advancement. I also thought that the ending of the show was odd, and not an effective resolution to the long journey that Nell takes throughout the show. Additionally, there were a few portions of the show that were spoken entirely in French, which quite literally lost something in translation...given the accent expertise shown by this cast, I felt those lines could have easily been delivered in English with a French accent, to avoid leaving the non-French speaking audience in the dark for minutes at a time.
Overall, the production uses humor and heart to tell Nell's legendary tale. The supporting cast is outstanding, and the entire show succeeds in transporting audiences to another time and place through their highly authentic performances. The length of the play is a definite drawback, but the production itself is worthy of praise.