Review: Arterton Makes A Pretty Witty, Awfully Bawdy Nell Gywnn

Nell Gwynn, Apollo Theatre ★★★★☆

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 31 months ago
Review: Arterton Makes A Pretty Witty, Awfully Bawdy Nell Gywnn Nell Gwynn, Apollo Theatre 4

Conflagrations, plague, the possibility your head might end up skewered on London Bridge any second: it's no wonder Restoration London liked its theatre bright, broad and bawdy. The Jessica Swale-penned Nell Gwynn is delivered in that self-same spirit: from the be-tasseled velvet and gold staging to the copious cock jokes, Pinter this ain't.  

Gemma Arterton — taking over Gugu Mbatha-Raw's role in the play that transferred from last year's Globe hit — makes one hell of a pretty, witty Nell. From her initial acting lesson with Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) it's love at first sight (for us, not just him). How could you not fall for the way she gurns through the 'three emotions', flirts outrageously with a fan and takes every given opportunity to break into some filthy ditty or other. Gwynn — one of the original female comedians — was hardly a master mistress of subtlety but Arterton's double entendres hit the mark for two reasons: her wink-wink delivery, and because we're so successfully transported back to the 1600s.

Gwynn's ribald humour is bolstered by her theatre pals, including a bitchy turn from Greg Haiste's Kynaston — a prototype Widow Twanky who believes he can pull off 'feminine' better than any female. But it's rickety wardrobe lady Nancy (Michel Dotrice) who wins the heartiest laughs of the night — her knack for comic timing best flaunted, ironically, in a skit where she flubs her lines again and again.

The story of Nell's ascent to Charles II's mistress may be 350-odd years old but Swale's play borrows from a few contemporary influences. There's more than a pinch of the stage version of Shakespeare in Love here: the ham acting, the plagiarised plays, the exasperated theatre manager... plus they bring a real life doggy on stage (next they'll be doing that with Miller plays).

Film comparisons don't end here: things get a bit My Fair Lady as Gwynn flounces off to the palace, rinses out her Cheapside drawl and receives an unexpected visit from her long-lost drunk of a mother (who'd probably be played by Stanley Holloway were he still about). There's an incongruous nod to Titanic too — a brilliant touch.

The drama between Nell and the merry monarch (played by David Sturzaker) is the least convincing aspect of the play — their love is a touch incredulous (though let's be fair, it was in real life) and his sudden death is met with a shrugging of the shoulders.

But that barely matters; this play is escapism in a silk dress and stockings. And just as Gwynn made off with thousands of hearts in her lifetime, so Arterton and her cohorts steal the audience's here.

Nell Gwynn is on at the Apollo Theatre, 31 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 7ES, until 30 April. Tickets £25-£75. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 17 February 2016

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