Nell Gwyn led a full and robust life in mid-1600s London before dying of apoplexy (acquired through syphilis) at the age of 37. She started out working in bawdy houses, became an orange seller at the re-opened theatres before becoming one of the first and most celebrated actresses of Restoration comedies. She was the mistress of several playwrights and producers as well as the main mistress to the restored monarch, King Charles II, with whom she had two sons. She survived The Great Plague of London as well as the resultant Great Fire. Her life is definitely worthy of dramatization and she is a major character in Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty and the subsequent film.
Ryan J-W Smith has written a monologue in rhyming iambic pentameter, Pretty, Witty Nell, a title bestowed on the actress by the famed diarist Samuel Pepys. Even though the running time is under an hour, it feels a lot longer. This writing style is better suited to multi-character pieces. As a monologue, it soon becomes monotone and repetitive. Melanie Johnson tries to inject life into the words, playing not only Nell but such interacting characters as King Charles and the puritan Cromwell, but she only succeeds in holding our attention sporadically. Nell Gwyn’s life deserves better than this one-note presentation.