Laura Pitt-Pulford on playing Nell Gwynn: 'She's such a strong female historic character’

Finding her voice: Laura Pitt-Pulford: Matt Writtle
Finding her voice: Laura Pitt-Pulford: Matt Writtle

We do love a new star of musical theatre in this country — and the next one has been under our noses for a while. The versatile Laura Pitt-Pulford has been, to name a few, a “warmly appealing” Mabel in Mack and Mabel at the Southwark Playhouse, a feisty Milly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park and, most recently, a quietly soulful Violet in Side Show, again at the Southwark Playhouse.

She’s ripe for the big time — an Olivier Award nomination in 2016 suggested as much — and she’s currently mixing things up a little by following in the notable footsteps of Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn.

Jessica Swale’s delightful feminist-slanted love letter to the theatre itself is about to return, after a national tour, for a limited run at the Globe, where it originally started out in 2015.

I caught the production on tour in Guildford, where Pitt-Pulford, 34, proved a playful delight as the savvy orange-seller-turned-actress-turned-king’s-mistress, not afraid of calling Juliet a “noodle” for being so sappy and lovelorn.

What was the appeal of the part, I ask when we meet in London between tour dates. “It was Nell Gwynn herself,” says Pitt-Pulford, who exudes an Emma Stone-esque likeability and vivacity. “I always thought: ‘Why hasn’t this been written before? She’s such a strong female historic character. If Nell were a man, would she have been written before now?’ People go: ‘Nell Gwynn was all tits and wit’ but you don’t get to where she did just by having tits and wit. Most of all there’s her humanity, which oozes warmth. There’s this ease about her.”

I remind Pitt-Pulford that she previously said that “if Nell were here today, she would have been heading the women’s march with the biggest and boldest placard”. She beams. “Damn right! Come on!”

Pitt-Pulford will be glad to be back at home in London during the Globe run, away from the vagaries of the touring life, which a lot of actors have to face for a large proportion of their careers.

( Tristram Kenton)
( Tristram Kenton)

Her worst experience of life on the road came from a stop in Swansea on a previous tour. “I walked into these digs and you literally couldn’t see the floor for clutter,” she says, shuddering slightly at the recollection. “I went into the toilet and — I’ve never seen this in all my life — on top of the toilet seat was carpet. And let’s just say the carpet wasn’t clean.”

Refreshing too is the chance to play such a sparky part, as women with agency are by no means a given in musical theatre. Seven Brides, best known as an unbelievably misogynistic 1954 film, certainly required some judicious tweaking for the Regent’s Park production Pitt-Pulford starred in. “Rachel [Kavanaugh, the director] kept saying, ‘Go there where I know you want to go, play her stronger than maybe she’s written at times’. So we basically gave Milly the puppet strings and Rachel kept saying, ‘Push her even more. Absolutely bollock him for it’.”

Timothy Sheader, artistic director of the Open Air Theatre, is full of praise for Pitt-Pulford. “Laura is luminous on stage,” he says. “She combines intelligence with natural grace, a winning combination in a performer.” I’ve long thought that she would shine in a superior revival of Annie Get Your Gun.

Pitt-Pulford grew up in Rugby and from an early age watched old films, particularly musicals, with her grandfather. She had, she says, a “fascination” with them and, playing the piano and flute as she did, initially thought that she’d be a theatre musician.

Her first experience of theatre was a pantomime, where a particularly terrifying witch had her “running out of the theatre, crying, hysterical. I said, ‘I never want to go back in there again!’” She pauses. “I think sometimes when you fear something you almost want to go back, like a horror movie.”

Thankfully her first encounter with musical theatre was more benign. “It was South Pacific in my local theatre. I was fascinated by the fact that an actress was washing her hair with real water! Now my question would be: ‘How is she doing that with a mic on?’”

Discovered as a singing prodigy at her first school, she didn’t make the choir at her next until her mother went in and made a special plea. “I often think if my Mum hadn’t done that, would I be doing this today?”

At 12 she joined a local youth operatic group and was smitten from the start. “The first time I went on stage in this proper theatre I felt like I was in my bedroom, it was so natural. It was a bizarre feeling,” she says. “The first show we did was West Side Story and I’ll never forget that feeling. I don’t think I’d ever been that happy in my entire life. It was not just being on stage, it was being part of a company, the whole theatrical life.”

With supportive parents behind her, drama school beckoned. “I don’t think I would have done it if they weren’t, because I wasn’t a very confident child,” she says.

A slow start to working life involved some “real s***y moments where I thought: ‘I can’t do this’”. What happened? “I felt like I might have lost my identity a little bit when I left drama school,” she says thoughtfully. “I was just one graduate among hundreds of others and I felt like I might have got a bit lost in the pack along the way.”

How did she reclaim herself? “I had an audition and thought: ‘F*** it, I don’t care, I’m over this anyway’,” she says. “I walked in and for the first time I sang with my voice, not a voice that I felt I should sing with or what I thought they wanted to hear. I was just me.” Of course she got the job and the future started to unfurl.

What does she know now that she wishes she’d known at the start of her career? “That just to be me is enough,” she says. “If you haven’t got a grip of yourself, how can you portray real people? Be comfortable with you, or you’ll get yourself into a tizz.”

She is disarmingly modest about the ups and downs of her profession and admits that she doesn’t know what’s next after Nell Gwynn. “I’d love to say that the offers are flooding in, but no they’re not. They never do!” Is that frightening? “A few years ago I would have been petrified. But now I think: ‘Tomorrow you’re still going to wake up, you’ll be all right’.” Pitt-Pulford’s dream role, she says, would be in Sunday in the Park with George. I suggest someone plans a production of that, or Annie Get Your Gun, pretty sharpish.

Nell Gwynn is at Shakespeare’s Globe, SE1, May 2-13;