Nell Gwynn at the Apollo
The story of Nell Gwynn, poor orange-seller turned actress turned Charles II’s mistress, is a classic Cinderella tale. This West End debut of Jessica Swale’s production – playing a run of eleven performances at the Globe last September – humanises this theatre legend.
Better-suited to the atmosphere of the Globe, it is credit to director Christopher Luscombe and his cast that the play succeeds in engaging the meeker West End audience with its sharp wit and bawdy humour. It creates the atmosphere of Restoration comedy without being an imitation, mixing in aspects reminiscent of the Carry On films or Blackadder. Subtle jibes at present day politics get the audience going, including such quips as Charles II’s (David Sturzaker) “down with austerity”, and criticism of the lack of funding for the arts. At times, Swale beats on the feminist drum, having Gwynn question Dryden’s portrayal of women in the theatre, but the play never preaches.
The pantomime-esque set helps to satirise the artificiality of Restoration theatre; occasionally the play loses itself in its theatrical backstage. Too much time is dedicated to the whimpering Edward Kynaston, the disgruntled veteran of female roles, and the portrayal of John Dryden, as a plagiarising playwright who never completes his works on time, is humorous at first, but too similar to Shakespeare in Love‘s Shakespeare.
It is Gemma Arterton who raises this performance from slapstick comedy, giving it a nuanced wit and vivacity. She is endearing, gracefully moving across the stage and employing a range of head tilts, pouts and coy smiles – Gwynn is aware of her charms without being coquettish. There is a sparkle in her eye when she performs her bawdy ditties set to playful melodies: even as they leave, members of the audience continue to hum her favourite I can dance and I can sing / And I can do the t’other thing.
For once, female roles are the strongest and most developed: Michele Dotrice’s Nancy and Sasha Waddell’s Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Keroualle deserve high praise, but it is Arterton who dazzles in this joyous and chaotic production. This play is not subtle or understated, there is nothing naturalistic about it – but it is hilarious.
Nell Gwynn is on at the Apollo Theatre from 12th February until 30th April 2016. Book your tickets here.