Lord Nelson's life examined in one-man play as part of The Festival of The Sea

For nearly two hundred years, Admiral Lord Nelson has stood patiently on his column in Trafalgar Square, watching the world and its many changes, good – and bad.

By Chris Broom
Friday, 14th February 2020, 1:58 pm
Updated Friday, 14th February 2020, 1:58 pm
Nicholas Collett as Admiral Lord Nelson in Nelson - A Sailor's Story. Picture by Peter Williams
Nicholas Collett as Admiral Lord Nelson in Nelson - A Sailor's Story. Picture by Peter Williams

But what happened to the ‘tars’ who served with him? Through their eyes we find out what it was really like at Trafalgar; and in Nelson’s own words, the hero – and the rebel, then – and now.

Below the column in Trafalgar Square, a homeless Falklands’ veteran shivers in the cold...

Written and performed by Nicholas Collett, Nelson – The Sailor’s Story is the result of months of in-depth research as the actor delved deep into the life of a man regarded as one of our greatest heroes. Not only does he play Nelson he also performs as various other characters.

‘I originally wrote this as a follow-up piece to my first show which was called Spitfire Solo, which is about the Battle of Britain,' says Nicholas.

‘Nelson had always kind of fascinated me as a person and as an admiral, so I was quite interested in his tactics and I was very interested in the clash between his life as an officer and his family life – and indeed his relationship with the rest of society.

‘I spent about a year doing research, reading pretty much all the big stuff on him, and then digging a little deeper into other surrounding issues.

‘What really became apparent was that his relationship with the men was very different than the normal sort of officer/men relationship. When you find that Nelson leads a boarding party with a sword in his hand, at the front, that's not traditional officer behaviour.

‘The more I read, the more I realised that he was a one-off, really. He was extremely brave, his men's welfare was his chief concern and that stretched as far as making sure that they got fresh rations as much as possible – he was one of the first people to carry fresh lime juice to stop scurvy.

‘Although I suppose a lot of people would see him as a very traditional admiral, he really broke the mould in many respects.

‘And that was certainly the case at Trafalgar where he adopted a tactic that a lot of people would think, well, that's certain ruin.

‘But in fact, he caught both the French and the Spanish off guard, he read their mindset perfectly.’

Then of course, there was his famous affair with Lady Emma Hamilton.

‘He had a daughter with Emma, and it was making life very difficult because people were saying on the one hand, yes, there were all of these wonderful victories at sea but he was persona non grata at home.’

The play is being put on by New Theatre Royal as part of its Festival of The Sea. Nicholas previously worked with the theatre’s chief executive Scott Ramsay during his time as director of the Harlow Playhouse in Essex.

‘I'm really really looking forward to performing at The Square Tower, it would have been the last place you would have seen the departing fleet heading across to Trafalgar.’

The show has been performed in America and Australia to great acclaim, and it made its UK debut at The Spring Arts Centre in Havant, but of course, there’s one place he would really love to stage it – on board HMS Victory herself.

‘It really has been a goal to bring it to Portsmouth in one way or another, so the Square Tower will be great – but I still harbour a dream to do the show in the ward room on board HMS Victory.

‘With Spitfire Solo I'm doing quite a lot of days this year because it's the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, and I've teamed up with the RAF Benevolent Fund to help raise funds for them through it, so I’d love to be able to do something like that with Nelson on HMS Victory.’


The Square Tower, Old Portsmouth

Sunday, February 16