House of Oranges: Millgate turns spotlight on England’s first actresses

THERE was much more to former orange seller Nell Gwyn than her notoriety as one of King Charles II’s double-figure-numbered mistresses.

Kate Davies as Nell

She is credited, for example, with founding the Royal Chelsea Hospital (now home to the much loved, red coated pensioners) and one of her illegitimate sons became the Duke of St Albans.

Nell also achieved fame in the late 17th Century as one of Britain’s first actresses. John Dryden, England’s inaugural Poet Laureate, even wrote parts for her.

Nearly 350 years later Nell is brought to life by Saddleworth-raised Kate Davies. Fellow cast members portray other actresses of the day, allowed to tread the boards only thanks to ‘merry monarch’ Charles and his patronage of the theatre.

Their lives and careers form the basis of Playhouse Creatures (February 2-9) and the latest production by Saddleworth Players at Millgate Arts Centre, Delph.

Kate, whose mum Carol directs Playhouse Creatures, told the Independent: “It’s good to have a play based on real people. There are so many sources to go and draw from.

“Everyone has had fun bringing out the characters. I am doing Nell with a broad cockney accent so I can get a lot of character traits in here.

Kate Davies as Nell

“She was quite ballsy, gutsy and potentially at time wasn’t endearing.

“In the play, Nell and Rebecca Marshall (Liz Travis) end up quite good friends. To an extent they did.

“They had to stick together because they were the only women in this men’s crowded field of career.

“But there was quite a bit of competition between them. Even though women were allowed on the stage there were still a limited number of female parts.

“And when you dig deeper there are reports of them having blazing arguments as who was more of a whore to various earls.”

There’s no argument though Nell began her working existence flogging oranges. And there’s every chance of some free vitamin C as Kate gets into character for her juicy role!

Playhouse Creatures plays from February 2-9. For tickets go online or ring 01457 874644 or email

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