THERE is a moment in Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale’s play about the theatre world in Charles II’s London, when Nell rails against the poorly written roles given to female actors at the time.

She urges playwright John Dryden to “write for real women” rather than his limited conception of them. In Laura Pitt-Pulford’s words, the actress currently taking on the considerable role of Nell, her character “rips him to pieces”.

“Back then, women were always written as poor heroines who say ‘yes’ the minute someone proposes to them. Nell is adamant that you have to show how much you love people and fight for that.

“From what I’ve read, I’ve got the impression that Nell Gwynn pushed for strong female roles.” Nell is introduced to us as an orange seller, looking for sixpences to keep herself afloat. The plot of the play follows her unlikely ascent to West End stardom as she wins over audiences, her fellow actors, and, ultimately, the king.

According to Pitt-Pulford, her remarkable rise is largely down to the force of her personality. “Nell became a star because her attitude was unlike anyone else’s. She held the puppet strings, even over the men.” Although Swale’s production follows recorded history as closely as possible, there are some gaps in the archives when it comes to Nell’s story.

She is thought to have been taken into the theatre world after being engaged in a spot of crowd banter while she was working inside a theatre selling refreshments. When she was invited to take the stage, it soon became apparent she was a natural performer. Charles Hart, one of the finest male actors of the time, helped her develop her dramatic range, a burgeoning skillset which found a fitting platform in Restoration theatre.

Samuel Pepys description of the actress as “pretty, witty Nell” has gone down in folklore. As Nell’s profile grew and grew, she attracted the attentions of Charles II, becoming the latest of the King’s many mistresses. Their love affair started in April 1668.

Pitt-Pulford says that some of Nell’s story is “based on guess work”. As such, Swale used some creative licence when writing the play. As for the star actress, she “wanted to get a sense” of Charles II’s vibrant, rambunctious London, so consulted historical texts but was wary of “being swamped by research”.

“Whenever I take on a role I always try and learn what people of that time went through, what hardships they suffered,” she says. “With this script, I laughed at certain times and cried at others. It is very light and fun but also has a darker side.

“I don’t want to give too much away but Nell has to deal with a great amount of loss. All of the characters lose something, in a way, but they all have theatre as a means of escape and release.”

As the play presents an era of history when theatre, and thus self-expression and creativity, was booming, it is no surprise to hear Pitt-Pulford say that Nell Gwynn features some “big characters with great personalities. It’s kind of like a sitcom – you learn to love the characters as their lives rapidly change in front of you”.

Some reviews suggested the production worked particularly well in its run at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, with its relative intimacy [in comparison with more orthodox theatres] facilitating the rowdy crowd banter witnessed in the production.

Nell enters the stage via the audience, a directorial choice which the Globe was also conducive to. Pitt-Pulford insists that the relatively cavernous space of the Theatre Royal will be equally effective in rendering the chaotic, exciting atmosphere of 1660s London. “We want the audience to feel like they are with us – we’re all living in this world.”

Nell Gwynn, Theatre Royal Brighton, New Road, Tuesday, March 7, to Saturday, March 11, 7.45pm (2.30pm matinee on Thursday and Saturday), from £18.90, 08448 717650