“I can dance and I can sing and I am good at either. And I can do the other thing when we get together”.
This bawdy refrain casually sung by Gemma Arterton as Nell neatly sums up Jessica Swale’s play about Charles II’s famous mistress, the actress Nell Gwynn. The play follows Nell from an orange hawker who, as the play begins, stands at the front of the stalls heckling the actors, through her career as an actress and later, plaything and love of King Charles II. As much as the play is about Nell Gwynn, it is also about the theatre world – the behind the scenes manoeuvring, writer’s block and the problems of rehearsing. In the first act, Kynaston, one of Nell’s fellow actors, declares: “People come to the playhouse to engage with the imaginary. For a short break from their wretched, drivel filled lives they can escape”. The audience at the Apollo Theatre laughed uneasily.
Christopher Luscombe’s production fizzes with energy and colour. The play first appeared at the Globe Theatre last autumn and echoes of the Globe appear in Hugh Durrant’s grand set. The set doesn’t move or change during the play. Instead, we see glimpses – of the King’s chambers, Nell’s backstage dressing room and the King’s box at the theatre. Rich colours fill the stage; huge golden tassels are festooned on high, and the costumes are resplendent; the King’s purple velvet breeches and Gwynn’s bosom-heaving gowns are sumptuous.
The character of Nell Gwynn is described in the cast list as “our heroine” and she really is. Like the King, the audience can’t help but fall in love with head-strong, witty Miss Gwynn. Nell answers back and plays hard to get with the King. David Sturzaker perfectly plays the astonishment that he’s met a woman who doesn’t jump at the chance to become his mistress: “well I’ll be damned” he splutters with wide eyed wonder as Nell abandons him to take her place on stage. Gemma Arterton is deliciously coquettish and seductive. She is immensely watchable.
However there is one other performance which dazzles and stands out. The wonderful Michele Dotrice plays Nancy the dresser. It’s such a marvel to see an actor play a part so convincingly. Her perfect comic timing is in evidence in the second act in a farcical and increasingly fantastical scene when Nancy is drafted in to play a female part in a play. She is generous and highly responsive as a cast member.
The play is infused with beautiful music by Nigel Hess. The cast sing witty, bawdy songs throughout. Arterton has a sweet voice but I do wonder whether the real Gwynn might have been a bit grittier. The excellent and versatile musicians Emily Baines, Sharon Lindo, Richard MacKenzie and Nicholas Perry appear on stage throughout playing period instruments and wearing period dress.
Nell Gwynn is a brilliant romp; a well-paced comedy with entertaining songs. I guarantee that you’ll leave with a smile on your face.
Review by Laura-Jane Foley
It is 1660. The Puritans have run away with their drab grey tails between their legs. Charles II has exploded onto the scene with a love of all things loud, French and sexy. And at Drury Lane, a young Nell Gwynn is selling oranges for sixpence. Little does she know who’s watching.
Award winning Gemma Arterton (The Duchess of Malfi, Made in Dagenham, Quantum of Solace) stars as cheeky, charming and clever Nell Gwynn, one of the first, and most acclaimed, women to appear on the London stage.
Jessica Swale’s blissfully entertaining comedy celebrates an unlikely heroine, who went from lowly orange seller to win the adoration of the public and the heart of the King.
Following a critically acclaimed and sell-out limited season of 11 performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, don’t miss this opportunity to see Nell Gwynn in the West End.
Booking until: 30th April 2016
31 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7ES