Currently in the final week of rehearsals, Laura Pitt-Pulford spoke to me about bringing the character of Nell Gwynn to the stage around the UK.
Mistress to King Charles II and known as ‘pretty witty Nell’ she is regarded as the real-life rags to riches Cinderella. As the first woman to grace the stage as an actor, she is regarded as a strong, reckless woman. “Everyone has heard of Nell Gwynn,” Laura said. “But so much we know about her is merely based on rumours, so I just have to get a feel for the way people lived in that time, and what London was like, in order to shape my character.”
Following it’s Olivier award win for Best New Comedy, Nell Gwynn is heading on a UK tour opening at the Lowry in Salford this March. Jessica Swale’s quick-witted writing brings the story of the feminist icon to life. “She is a very strong woman,” Laura explained. “She is feisty, bold and daring, and has a very big heart for sure, but she is also vulnerable at times and she hides it very well. Nell was very confident, she just says things as they are, as she is entirely blunt and open – which was rare to see from a woman of that time.”
Laura didn’t see Nell Gwynn when it was playing in London, and although she is gutted to have missed it, she believes it is an advantage. “I heard incredible things about Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton who played the role previously, but the director was quite pleased I hadn’t seen it, because it means I am going into it with fresh eyes, and my very own take on it,” said Gemma. “It is interesting because you kind of think, oh maybe my take is very similar to Gemma’s or Gugu’s, but you just don’t know.”
With an extensive career in theatre, particularly musical theatre, Laura was nominated for an Olivier award last year, Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Comedy is a tough genre to crack, but Laura feels like the text makes it a whole lot easier. “I think it is so well written that you don’t ever have to play the comedy of it, it is all there in the line and I think the moment you try to be funny – you are never going to win. It honestly is as simple as just delivering the line, Jessica who wrote the piece has just absolutely hit the nail on the head and it just feels effortless.
So it comes quite easily I guess, obviously along the way you find out more about your character, so you add more flavour to your character, and without knowing you build a confidence and find the way that they speak, how they deliver their dialogue, and their manner in general,” Laura explained.
Director Christopher Luscombe returns to direct the tour, Lauren said: “Chris is great, because what could of easily happened is that we came in, and he went ‘you stand there, and you stand there,’ but he hasn’t. We have been finding it all for ourselves from scratch. He has been guiding us, but he creates a really lovely rehearsal room, it is very relaxed and just feels very safe, so you can try things out. We are laughing so much, probably far too much, but we seem to be a really happy company and we have so many amazing people – everyone is so perfectly cast.”
Nell Gwynn is hugely different to anything Laura has done before, but saying that, Nell is a production that is hugely different to anything out there. “I’ve done lots of musicals that have been amazing, but with this you are dealing with a lot more text, which I personally love,” she said. “It does differ when you’re the title role, that is something that is quite daunting. The way I approach it is that it is pretty much the same all the time, I approach all the characters by starting with nothing and using my rehearsal period as wisely as I can,” she said.
However, despite all the magnificent work she has already done, I asked her if she still got nervous: “I am absolutely terrified, I always am though. My director gave me this great note the other day, he said “The wonderful thing about Nell is that she can be flippant, she is so confident and she takes things so much in her stride, that if things go wrong it doesn’t matter. But it is very calming to hear that, because if you forget a line, or something goes wrong, Nell wouldn’t care so why should I. She would just get on with it, so that is the biggest thing I take with my when I open on that Wednesday night.”
Laura’s love for acting came at a very early age, when she played the role of Ratty in a school production of the Wind in the Willows. “I remember the first time going on stage and I felt so stupidly comfortable. As soon as I got on stage, I can’t describe it but something just happened,” Laura said. She explained how acting on stage just sat with her so well, “When I realised I could make a potential career out of this, and make money and live, I thought hang on this can’t be true, doing something you really enjoy?”
Her career sprung from there, and there is still so much of the theatre world for her to tackle. She said: “I feel so lucky, sometimes I feel like I’m not living this life and I will wake up and someone will go ‘It has all been a big dream.’ And you never know when it is going to end, as an actor you go ‘well this could be it, but you know what, I’ve had a really good run.’ It is weird, you just have to remember to live in the present and not try and wish your life away with what is next all the time, something I’ve really learnt along the way is to just live for what you’re doing right now. If you don’t enjoy it, then you miss it. Life goes so fast and the older you get, the more you realise.”
Nell Gwynn opens at the Lowry theatre in Salford on the 1st of March, and tickets can be found here.