TRANSFERRING a play from the intimate and active Shakespeare’s Globe to the formalities of the West End is never easy, but Jessica Swale’s comedic and poignantly political tale of Nell Gywnn manages to do so pretty seamlessly. You can’t help but smile and giggle your way through this refreshing and jolly jaunt, while the trailblazing feminist message delicately weaves itself through the script and songs.
Set in the late 17th Century, Swale’s play deals with the true story of young Nell (Gemma Arterton), an orange-seller, whose life changes dramatically when prominent actor of the time, Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) decides to train her as an actress.
This causes uproar within the public domain, when Nell joins the established King’s Company, particularly from Edward Kynaston (played beautifully by Greg Haiste) who previously had held all female roles, “They’ve disgraced our trade. Ruined our art. They’ve put a woman on the stage!”
Nell proves to be a natural actress and she soon catches the attention of King Charles II and after some gentle persuading, she becomes his mistress. The King keeps the company on their toes with weekly new play requests, much to the dismay of resident playwright, John Dryden.
Without a doubt, Gemma Arterton is the jewel in the crown, being an absolute joy to watch. It is clear from the first moment we see and hear her that she lives and breathes the role of Nell. Her transformation from a Charles Dickens’-like Nancy to a refined mistress of King Charles II is elegant and shrewd. Arterton has a constant energy which bounces beautifully off the audience in a real Carry On style.
Her spirit is infectious and pulls the entire performance together; particularly her tawdry ditties and vulgar jokes are spot on: “I can dance and I can sing / And I can do the t’other thing.” Special mention must also go to Michele Dotrice, who plays a befuddled wardrobe mistress. Her comic timing is second to none as she is forced to go on stage in Nell’s absence in a farcical, cringe-worthy scene.
Hugh Durrant’s colourful set design is engaging and busy, reminiscent of the stage production of Shakespeare in Love. Similarly Nigel Hess’s score is almost irritatingly catchy and I found myself toe tapping and humming along right until the end. The whole company work so well together in the ensemble numbers, perfect harmonies and a wealth of instruments can’t help but elevate your spirits.
Nell Gwynn is a delight to watch, thanks to its catchy songs, witty double-entendres and a star female lead. Swale keeps the audience hooked with knowing theatrical references and enchantingly likeable characters. If you can cope with relentless bawdy jokes: “I’ve been waiting to see your Florimel for ages!” and a lot of nudge-nudge-wink-wink, then treat yourself to this chaotic and charming spectacle.
by Heather Doughty