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Review of Nell Gwynn at The Apollo Theatre

Gemma Arterton (Nell Gwynn) and David Sturzaker (Charles II) in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre.
Gemma Arterton (Nell Gwynn) and David Sturzaker (Charles II) in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre. Photo credit Tristram Kenton

If you’re after something deep and meaningful, look elsewhere. Nell Gwynn is an uncompromising romp through the life and times of this working-class character who successfully leaps into the higher echelons of seventeenth century society faster than a twenty-first century politician can utter the term “social mobility”. There’s plenty of witty banter in this drama about drama, and – credit where credit is due – this production makes no claim to be historically authentic. And in any event, such accuracy would be quite impossible, given the various versions of Gwynn’s story that have passed down through the generations.

What we have instead, then, is theatrical entertainment performed to a very high standard. Gemma Arterton in the title role holds her own in a talented company, and is convincing enough, but it was Greg Haiste’s Edward Kynaston and Michele Dotrice’s Nancy that stood out for me. The former had such palpable passion and anger, completely inhabiting the role – a cross between Victor Meldrew and Kenneth Williams – and the latter added substantially to the show’s comedy value.

In Nancy’s inept timing lies, albeit ironically, much humour. One scene with Nancy that has theatre manager Thomas Killigrew (Michael Garner) beyond exasperated is very much like something out of Michael Frayn’s Noises Off. The whole company, though, like the cast of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time next door on Shaftesbury Avenue, is upstaged by the brief appearance of a real, living and breathing dog. “Awww!” cried the audience, as if cued in themselves by Killigrew. (It’s a King Charles spaniel, geddit?)

Jessica Swale’s script is, in places, implausibly modern, even after I’d managed to clear my mind of the Shakespearean practice of mostly blank verse for upper-class characters and mostly prose for so-called ‘commoners’. With a very thinly veiled swipe at present-day cuts and proposed cuts to the Government’s arts budget, it’s a script that appeals to the masses but simultaneously stops audiences from being totally engrossed in the show. But for regular patrons of the theatre, there are plenty of stagey references to be enjoyed.

For whatever reason, Nell Gwynn is depicted as being actually besotted with King Charles II (David Sturzaker), and vice versa. Could she really be a ‘Protestant whore’ (or any sort of prostitute) if this is a consensual relationship on both sides? I don’t think, however, we’re really meant to dwell on such matters in this feather-weighted, cosy and fluffy show with plenty of heart. What is more inescapable is that not every punchline landed well, and one or two were frankly cringeworthy.

The second half seemed better than the first. A relentless lack of sentiment, though, results in little beyond broad smiles and happy faces. Whilst I cannot fault either costumes or choreography, direction or diction, I did think this production lacked weight. It’s so fluffy and light. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but in all the bawdiness and having the King of England wrapped around Nell’s little finger (metaphorically speaking), I had hoped for at least a little bit of intensity. As I say, we must go elsewhere for that. This is highly entertaining theatre, however, and I am pleased to have seen Nell Gwynn. I trust you will be too.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

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.

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Booking until: 30th April 2016
Apollo Theatre
31 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7ES

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