‘Renegade Nell’ Review: When the Highwayman Is a Superwoman

by 24USATVMarch 30, 2024, 3:01 a.m. 21
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Nell, played by Louisa Harland of “Derry Girls,” is another Wainwright heroine who must learn how to harness her strength and high spirits, and not do collateral damage to her family and friends. (She gets called “unnatural,” an epithet also applied to the protagonist of “Gentleman Jack” when she acts in ways women are not supposed to.) Nell’s challenge is greater, though, because the strength is so unexpected. Stumbling upon a stagecoach robbery, she is about to be shot when a tiny light appears and gives her ruffian-bashing, bullet-dodging capabilities.

The light turns out to be a winged humanoid named Billy, played by Nick Mohammed of “Ted Lasso,” who returns to bail out Nell whenever she is in danger (though not always as promptly as she would like). And she is in danger a lot: Her new powers, combined with some complicated and tragic circumstances, turn her into a fugitive suspected of multiple murders and eventually put her in the unlikely position of saving the British crown from a Jacobite invasion. (Thematically, it’s helpful for Wainwright that the actual monarch at the time, who faced an actual coup attempt, was a woman, Queen Anne, played in the show with an arch sang-froid by Jodhi May.)

It is worth mentioning here that “Renegade Nell” is a comedy, and that various traditions of British comedy figure heavily in how it looks and feels. It’s like a gender-switched “The Beggar’s Opera” (the most famous play of the show’s time period), with a male highwayman, Devereux (Frank Dillane), as the female lead’s comic foil. It borrows from the picaresque novels of the 18th century, as Nell and a ragtag band that includes her two sisters (Bo Bragason and Florence Keen), a resourceful stablehand (Ényì Okoronkwo) and Devereux bounce around the countryside getting into and out of alarming scrapes.

And hanging in the background is Shakespeare. There are references to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “King John,” and Billy is an Ariel-like sprite who speculates that his partnership with Nell is meant to restore balance to the world, which would be in the best traditions of Shakespearean comedy.

Billy must speculate because neither he nor Nell has any idea why they have been brought together, and the audience does not know what Billy is or where he comes from.

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