It’s just as well that Nell Gwynn was a real person because she’d be entirely unbelievable as an invented character. The favourite mistress of King Charles II, Gwynn started out as a prostitute, giving that up to flog oranges in theatres, which got her a break on the stage at a time when female actresses were a completely novel idea. She is still remembered for her theatrical prowess, which also happened to catch the attention of said King, by whom she would go on to have two children and whose descendants have permeated the aristocracy. It is the original rags-to-riches story, and the cheeky, quick-witted heroine at the heart of it would, as I say, be far too good to be true if purely the product of some writer’s imagination.
A gift, then, for playwright Jessica Swale, whose merry version of Gwynn’s life has transferred from Shakespeare’s Globe where it featured Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the title role, to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue, starring the ultimate girl-next-door Gemma Arterton.
When she comes on, it does rather seem that Arterton is not having to act at all – her sassy but unassuming demeanour teamed with a perpetual glint in her eye are simply what you’d expect from her. Yet as the play progresses, you realize just what talent Arterton has, her energy flooding the auditorium with absolute ease. She is in her element, making Gwynn brash and audacious, yet completely sincere and effortlessly cutting. Arterton clearly relishes the more bawdy side of this production, which is just as well as it forms the backbone (expect countless jokes about oysters and sausages). Her performance is teeming with winks, shrugs, rolling eyes, knowing smiles to the audience and weighty double entendres, which make the whole ridiculous tale very endearing.
Arterton maintains wonderful chemistry with Gwynn’s two love interests, the first being fellow actor, and mentor, Charles Hart. A leading actor of the time, this version of Hart is flamboyantly played by Jay Taylor as a sort of seventeenth century Milk Tray Man, who becomes Nell’s Henry Higgins by refining her rough charm for the stage. David Sturzaker takes on King Charles II with teasing restraint, which makes his one of the most comical turns, and also makes manifest the difference between Nell and the class into which she gets drawn.
Alongside, there are outrageously funny performances by Greg Haiste and Michele Dotrice, massively upping the mirth. Haiste plays the actor gazumped by Gwynn when she takes to the stage, having previously played all of the female leads. He is obsessed with technique and method, takes himself ludicrously seriously, and thus Swale makes a loving dig at the archetypal actor. Dotrice (famous for her role in television’s Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em) plays Gwynn’s dresser, Nancy, who has to take the female lead when Nell is otherwise engaged at the palace. Her comedy timing is second to none: this is an absolute pro at work and she garners the loudest laughs of the night (much like her recent performance opposite David Suchet, as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnestat the Vaudeville).
Indeed, the entire cast appears to be having a blast up on-stage, which is infectious for the audience and makes this a gem of a show. It is lively and joyful, with the silliness of a Carry On film, the wryness of Blackadder and shrewdly judged political references like the very best pantomimes (the ones where the obvious jokes for the children have double meanings for the adults, in terms of both current affairs and rudeness). Having said that, Swale does throw a good, hard look at the role of women into the play, which provokes more sober thought in addition. This was a time when women were only just being allowed to appear on the stage, when roles for them were shallow and ill thought out, in a society that treated them as inferior based on their gender alone. Sound at all familiar? In the lightest possible of ways, Swale thrusts a feminist agenda at the audience, and the humour simply highlights the issues rather than diluting them.
Devilishly enjoyable, Nell Gwynn is an ebullient romp of a show, and won’t fail to put you in a good mood.
Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre, 31 Shaftesbury Ave, London W1D 7ES, until 30 April 2016. Running Time 2hrs 30 minutes including 1 interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.