The reputation of Nell Gwynn has always been larger than life. A cockney sparrow, voluptuous breasts falling out of her 17th century corseted dress, oranges on sale and much more besides. This was a woman from the brothels of London who became one of theatre’s first actresses and rose to become mistress to a king. It’s the stuff of legend.
Writer Jessica Swale came up with a joyous interpretation of the tale for The Globe last year and now this hilarious and fruity romp has transferred to the West End.
Nell Gwynn is a fabulously bawdy love letter to the stage that is set in a theatre (dressed with Hugh Durrant’s sumptuous set), that’s around the corner from the Apollo, where this production is now playing.
It’s packed with in-jokes, loads of knowing nods to the audience, double entendres, and a dog. Oliver Cromwell (played by Milly), the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, got his/her own ovation and applause on opening night. You can’t beat a real live dog, as they discovered in Shakespeare In Love.
In fact Nell Gwynn shares a lot of the same style and humour as SIL. It’s enchanting, enthralling and throughly entertaining. I had a silly smile on my face throughout, totally in love with Gemma Arterton’s lush performance as the luminous Nell.
I can totally understand the reasoning behind the West End transfer but the production does lose some of its atmosphere. The audience is made so much a part of the performance that there is the temptation to barrack and cheer, which is positively encouraged at The Globe but not in Shaftesbury Avenue.
But there are times when you’ve just got to respond to this wonderfully spirited and heartwarming tale of love and the theatre and, lubricated during an interval, the second act on opening night got rather lively.
Nell is standing in the pit of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, while the an actor attempts to get through a prologue. She heckles him as he struggles to remember his lines and he stops, all a fluster. “Shall I carry on?” he weakly begs his audience.
She’s later reprimanded by the King’s Company leading man, Charles Hart (Jay Taylor), who then encourages her onto the stage to try her hand at acting (at a time when only men performed). With her cheeky personality and bags of confidence Nell proves a natural and, as they say in showbiz, a star was born.
She soon attracts the eye of King Charles II (nicely played by David Sturzaker), a keen lover of the arts (and much more besides), and she becomes his mistress, possibly the only woman that he ever truly loved.
But in-between this endearing (and true) love story, played out in court and backstage at Drury Lane, there is an ensemble of richly drawn characters that you can’t help falling in love with.
Michelle Dotrice, who rose to fame in some TV’s Mothers Do ‘Ave Em as Michael Crawford’s long suffering wife, Betty, tries to act everyone else off the stage with a riotous performance as Nancy, Nell’s dresser and confidante.
She’s there with a ready quip, a loud aside or ribald comment that bring tears of laughter while you empathise with Edward Kynaston (Greg Haiste), a renowned actor who played the women’s roles on stage, who is in danger of being made redundant if they allow real women to perform.
“No woman can play a woman as well as I can play a woman!” he roars. “What does she have that I don’t?” he screams. “Tits” replies Nancy.
David Rintoul is always good value as the go-to actor for a scheming, cynical, bad guy. The look of utter disdain he gave the audience when we all cheered the dog’s arrival was priceless.
Arterton is peerless as the effervescent Nell but you do hope that she’s not going to be pigeon-holed by theatre directors into these chirpy, cockney, roles (this coming so soon after Made In Dagenham). She’s done classical theatre (not to mention a Bond film) and makes a charismatic leading lady.
Like all of The Globe’s productions, this is very much an ensemble piece with 16 superb actors giving top turns, a fantastic quartet providing the music (and a dog) and each are a sum of the whole. Every character is a treasure, from the brief appearance of Nell’s gin-soaked, brothel-owner, mum to Charles II Portuguese wife, Queen Catherine, who gives a poignant and dignified speech about her failure to give her husband an heir (both cameos wonderfully played by Sarah Woodward).
Director Christopher Luscombe has created a glorious, lively, entertaining comedy that occasionally veers towards a farce, which is no bad thing. I laughed from beginning to end and you will too.
Nell Gwynn is playing at the Apollo Theatre until April 30.
Jessica Swale’s fruity Nell Gwynn, at London’s Apollo Theatre, is a glorious, lively, bawdy romp that will have you laughing from beginning to end. An absolute delight.