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Fresh take on ‘king’s mistress’ Nell at Highbury Corner theatre

Actress reveals overlooked side of the courtesan – a resilient, enterprising and loving mother

10 May, 2019 — By Emily Finch

Sarah Lawrie as Nell and Claire Louise Amias as Aphra Behn in Oranges & Ink. Photo: Bruce Wang

WHEN you think of Nell Gwyn the words “king’s mistress” may pop into your head.

But a Holloway Road actress is reimagining the 17th-century courtesan as a “loving mother” in a new play, Oranges & Ink, performed at Hen and Chickens Theatre, at Highbury Corner, from Tuesday.

“I told people I was playing Nell and they told me one of three things they knew about her, which was: orange seller, whore or prostitute and then an actress. They say that in that order,” said Sarah Lawrie.

But she believes there was “so much more to Nell”. “She was just a brilliant, very resilient, enterprising woman,” she said. “What I think the playwright has done well is to introduce the fact that she was also a loving mother. A lot of her actions were really to do with what was best for her kids. The children weren’t legitimate and she had to fight to make sure they were recognised by the king.”

Nell’s early life is shrouded in mystery, with historians unable to prove her exact place of birth during the Restoration era when Charles II regained the throne.

Claire and Sarah with director Alex Pearson

There is a belief that her mother may have run a brothel somewhere in Covent Garden, where Nell worked supplying hot water to each room or even as a child prostitute.

As a teenager, Nell gained a job as a titillating orange seller at the playhouse now known as the Theatre Royal, in Drury Lane. She quickly climbed up the ranks to become a leading actress, but her career on the stage was over by the time she was 21 when she was handpicked to be the king’s main mistress.

“She led a real rag-to-riches life – a real-life Cinderella. This play shows her as a whole person, in the years after the stage which aren’t really talked about,” said Ms Lawrie.

Nell’s direct descend­ants from the Beauclerk line saw the play when it was performed in the West End last month. Ms Lawrie said: “It was amazingly moving. I think they thought it was brilliant that we humanised Nell.”

Claire Louise Amias not only wrote Oranges & Ink, but stars as Aphra Behn, one of the first professional female playwrights, alongside Ms Lawrie in the two-hander.

Ms Amias said: “I wanted to write a play about female friendships and that’s something that hasn’t been put on stage that much, particularly with two amazing kick-ass females from history. Women were called whore if they didn’t conform.”

Director Alex Pearson, who grew up off Upper Street and spent her youth learning her trade in the borough’s theatres, said the scrutiny that the two women faced is akin to what celebrities confront today.

She said: “It’s a little bit like today with the paparazzi and the constant cult of celebrity.”

Oranges & Ink runs from Tuesday to May 18 at 7.30pm at Hen and Chickens Theatre at 109 St Paul’s Road.

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