Nell Gwynn

Posted by Laurence Green

Nell Gwynn is a warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history brought vividly to life. An immensely enjoyable show! Laurence Green reviews.

Nell Gwynn star Gemma Arterton

It is often said that an actor is born to play a particular role and this is certainly true of Gemma Arterton who brings a wonderful luminous quality to Jessica Swale's witty, tongue-in-cheek drama Nell Gwynn, directed by Christopher Luscombe, which was originally staged ay Shakespeare's Globe last year - but minus Ms Arterton - and is now at the Apollo Theatre in the West End.

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. But she soon catches the eye of Charles Hart, leading actor in the King's Company, and it is not long before this daughter of a brothel keeper in east London becomes one of the first stage actresses in England and the King's mistress.

Written in the style of a Restoration romp, Swale's feminist-slanting drama suggests that Nell needed more than sweet looks to accomplish her rise to fame for she is astute, outspoken and diligent, overcoming snobbery, illiteracy and widespread hostility as well as managing to insinuate herself out of court politics.

However, this is a play as much about theatre as it is about Nell, about how attitudes progress, truth and artifice. We see a company devising, quarrelling, rehearsing and surviving and, in one of the best scenes in the play, Nell, her sister and dresser, help the dithering playwright John Dryden come up with a realistic female character. The humour is often bawdy and great fun, while the line "Playhouses are a valuable national asset" certainly strikes true in the austerity Britain of today.

Hugh Durrant's set of a 17th-century playhouse resembles the Bankside Theatre, only larger and with more colour, velvet and excess. Nigel Hess's lively musical score blends in beautifully with the drama, and we also get flouncing chorus boys and even a brief appearance by a real dog.

But this is Ms Arterton's show - she is rarely off stage and she manages to be cheeky, charming and clever as the playful, Nell, giving countless sly winks to the audience. We can totally believe how she was able to revolutionise the traditional attitudes of the time. Sterling support is provided by Daniel Sturzaker as her beloved Charles who, for all his lavish hedonism, displays a streak of dark anxiety, Nicholas Shaw as the hesitant playwright John Dryden, Greg Haist as Edward Kynaston, an actor specialising in women's roles, who cannot resist from displaying vocal disgust at his truly female 'rival', Nell, Jay Taylor as Charles Hart who gives young Nell her big break and Anneika Rose as Nell's sister Rose. There is also a lovely comic cameo from Michele Dotrice as Nell's stout and doughty dresser-cum-understudy Nancy.

This in short is a warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history brought vividly to life and performed with just the right amount of affection. An immensely enjoyable show!

Nell Gwynn

Runs at the Apollo Theatre until Saturday 30 April 2016

Box office: 03330 333 4809

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