ASB Waterfront Theatre, 138 Halsey St, Wynyard Quarter, Auckland

17/08/2017 - 30/08/2017

Production Details



A radiant and rollicking new comedy from award-winning British playwright Jessica Swale is opening at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in August, as part of Auckland Theatre Company’s stellar 2017 mainstage season.

The winner of the 2016 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, Nell Gwynn will be directed by Artistic Director Colin McColl and performed by a spectacular cast that includes Claire Chitham (Shortland Street, Outrageous Fortune) in the titular role.

It’s London in 1660. The Puritans and their grey cloud have gone and theatre is all the rage once more. There’s also a new fad; putting a woman, an ‘actor-ess’, on the ordinarily all male-stage. When The King’s Company at Drury Lane casts the pretty, witty orange seller Nell Gwynn as its first leading lady, Charles is immediately smitten. Having captured the heart of her King, the unlikely heroine takes her country by storm and becomes a 17th century media sensation.

Starring alongside Chitham is a lineup of some of the best in the business including Mark Hadlow (The Hobbit, King Kong, Fagon) Alison Bruce (Sons, Angels in America, The Almighty Johsnons), Andrew Grainger (Billy Elliot the Musical, Lysistrata, Once on Chunuk Bair, Jesus Christ Superstar), Tim Balme (The Almighty Johnsons, Horseplay, Nothing Trivial), Roy Ward (Guys and Dolls, Dirty Laundry, The Brokenwood Mysteries) Hera Dunleavy (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Other Desert Cities) and Byron Coll (Amadeus, Little Shop of Horrors, Ladykillers).

Vida Gibson (Power Rangers, Shabbat Shalom) and Samuel Austin (Mother Courage, Aristarkh) will be making their Auckland Theatre Company debut.

This will be the twenty-second production on which Colin McColl and costume designer Elizabeth Whiting have worked together, this time recreating the luxurious and titillating lives of Londoners in 1660.

The power duo from Billy Elliot the Musical, musical director John Gibson (Amadeus, Chicago) and choreographer Malia Johnston (Rushes, Meremere), will direct the music and movement.

Jessica Swale’s brilliant, bawdy and bodacious new work about theatre’s most legendary love affair is a love-letter to theatre itself and a celebration of the cheerful chaos involved in putting on a play.

If you loved the sell-out season of Anne Boleyn, get ready for another riotous night at the theatre.

ASB Waterfront Theatre in Wynyard Quarter
15 & 16 August – Previews
17 – 30 August 2017
Booking info: or 09 309 3395 

Claire Chitham:  Nell Gwynn
Tim Balme:  King Charles II
Mark Hadlow:  Lord Arlington/John Dryden
Byron Coll:  Edward Kynaston
Hera Dunleavy:  Nancy/Queen Catherine
Alison Bruce:  Lady Castlemaine/Louise De Keroualle/Old Ma Gwynn
Andrew Grainger:  Charles Hart
Roy Ward:  Thomas Killigrew
Samuel Austin:  Ned Spiggett/William
Vida Gibson:  Rose Gwynn/Servant 

Director: Colin McColl
Set design: Rachael Walker
Costume design: Elizabeth Whiting
Lighting design: Jo Kilgour
Musical director: John Gibson
Choreographer: Malia Johnston  

Theatre , Musical ,

Restoration comedy triumph of superb acting

Review by Janet McAllister 21st Aug 2017

This Auckland Theatre Company production of a 21st century Restoration comedy is a triumph of superb acting, design and wit.  

UK playwright Jessica Swale uses the story of Nell Gwynn – an early actress turned royal mistress – to muse on the position of women and theatre itself (an escape from “wretched, drivel-filled lives”).

Colin McColl’s direction brings out much of the script’s innate humour. Actors are “athletes of the imagination”, intones delightful scene-stealer Byron Coll as pompous thespian Edward. [More]


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The Rebirth of the Theatre

Review by James Wenley 21st Aug 2017

Of the many great responses from liberal tweeters commenting on the backlash to Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the thirteenth Doctor, my favourite was from playwright Dan Rebellato:  

AUDIENCE MEMBER runs from theatre.
PASSER-BY: What ails you sir?
MEMBER: ’Sblood, they have a WOMAN playing DESDEMONA.

That woman is believed to be Anne Marshall, who played Desdemona in the first English production to feature professional female actors on 8 December 1660. The playhouses had reopened for the first time in 18 years following the end of puritan government and the restoration of King Charles II earlier that year. (That would be like shutting down cinemas and Netflix for two decades… Imagine what that must have been like after such a long absence!). The public flocked back, but it wasn’t quite like it had been before. Charles bought new tastes from his time spent in French exile, including… women playing women.

In Nell Gwynn we see the very sort of scene described in Rebellato’s tweet. A woman on the stage? The death of the theatre splutters Edward Kynaston, a self-important actor specialising in female impersonation. Played with wonderfully anxious bile by Byron Coll … [More].


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Boisterous entertainment’s droll banter punctuated with philosophical inquiry and genuine pathos

Review by Nik Smythe 18th Aug 2017

The ASB Waterfront Theatre auditorium is effectively in character as London’s famous Drury Lane playhouse circa late 1660s, wherein a clutch of common women hawk their oranges to the convening audience. Young apprentice actor Ned Spiggett (Samuel Austin) nervously introduces their major player, Charles Hart (Andrew Grainger), but his unease is swooped upon by the heckling crowd until a plucky young orange seller, Miss Nell Gwynn (Claire Chitham), comes to his rescue with some deftly dispatched repartee. 

Her natural talent for extroversion catches Mr Hart’s eye, and he takes her under his wing to join their company as their first ever first female player, a milestone made possible by artistically progressive King Charles II (Tim Balme) who not only scrapped the law stating that women cannot legally perform but apparently insisted they must.  

Directed by Colin McColl, the cast injects a good deal of playful energy into the affectations of the period, without hamming it up unduly. The actor probably at the greatest risk of doing so is Byron Cole as the petulant Edward Kynaston, would-be diva and proto-method actress, somewhat put-out and bitter at being usurped by Gwynn for their repertoire’s female leads. It’s almost surprising, in this day and age, that the old ‘man in drag’ shtick can still draw such voluble hoots of incredulous mirth, well-earned nonetheless.

Roy Ward cuts the perennial figure of the bookish, long-suffering director as Thomas Killigrew, struggling to elicit worthy performances from his actors while fielding challenges brought on by internal politics and general circumstance.  Mark Hadlow skilfully balances two diametrically opposite roles: the playwright John Dryden, a lovably scruffy fellow who welcomes Nell’s input to the inner workings of a woman’s character, and the aggressively conservative, self-serving parliamentarian, Lord Arlington.

Vida Gibson is amiable enough as Nell’s fresh faced sister Rose, as much as one could hope from a role whose purpose seems mainly expositional. Alison Bruce appears to have the most demanding quick-change regime, switching between her three distinct, elaborately clad personae: the king’s previous favourite mistress, Lady Castlemaine (he clearly likes them stroppy); the insufferable French dolly-bird Duchess Louise de Kérouaille; and Ma Gwynn, Nell and Rose’s fierce alcoholic mother. 

Hera Dunleavy also enjoys two vastly distinct roles: costume minder Nancy, naive and cynical in equal measures to delightful effect, and Catherine, the haughty spitfire of a Spanish Queen dressed in mourning black.  Altogether the cast delivers an exemplary performance, with Chitham’s titular character’s open-hearted cheek and generous smile providing a strong centre opposite Balme’s ostensibly arrogant but deceptively complex King Charles. 

Playwright Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn was first performed at Shakespeare’s Globe less than two years ago, offering a fresh overview of a vibrant and transformative historic era over three centuries ago. While the post-Cromwell reign of Charles II, returned from exile in France, and his sustained romance with the lowborn strumpet Gwynn, is fairly well documented throughout the intervening years, this play has essentially been my own introduction to the actual story, though no doubt some liberties have been taken narrative-wise.

The crackling, wit-laden dialogue combines various references to well-known historical milestones, with comical allusions to the preposterousness of such radical concepts as female actors and realistic theatre. Swale’s script is adroitly structured so that what begins as a light hearted satirical insight to the changing landscape of the performing arts and politics of the day, develops into a complex tale in which the droll banter is punctuated with philosophical inquiry and genuine pathos – just enough to make us care, without diminishing from the boisterous entertainment. 

Similarly, the visual design appears to be based on contemporary authenticity, garnished with stylistic anachronisms. Rachael Walker’s set design, framed by impressive concentric asymmetrical wooden arches, alternates between the famous Drury Lane playhouse stage and dressing room, and the opulence of the King’s palace with its fleur-de-lis curtains and silver balloon-animal sculptures. 

Elizabeth Whiting’s costumes express the flamboyant mores of the day, with astonishing headdresses and sumptuous coats, along with more modern pinstripe suits, jeans and cowboy boots. Nell herself begins like the other women in her class, sporting a busty bodice and saucy skirt complemented by colourful modern sneakers, before moving up in the world to more elegant, though still colourful gowns and smart jackets as befits a royal mistress.

Under the adept direction of John Gibson the musical score is 100% live and largely in-story, performed by certain members of the cast accompanying gifted, dedicated key violinist Charmian Keay. The resulting soundtrack ranges from bawdy folksongs sung to lively jigs as choreographed by Malia Johnston, to vocal harmonies both sweetly melodic and bellicose, and more interpretive, twisted instrumental arrangements underpinning moments of absurdity and/or poignancy.

Not untypical for a premiere performance, previews notwithstanding, the cast takes a few scenes to settle into character and interface with the crowd. This indeed they do, so by the time the king attends Nell’s debut production the company is well into its stride, their audience responding with appropriate enthusiasm.

We depart well and truly entertained, with a slightly enriched knowledge of history and insights into the ongoing melee of social politics.


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