Play of the week: Gemma Arterton lights up the stage as Nell Gwynn

An exuberant comedy about the 17th century actress who became King Charles II's mistress

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London’s Globe Theatre has a very special atmosphere so taking a play that worked there and moving it indoors needs an expert touch. But it’s safe to say that this sumptuous production of Jessica Swale’s bawdy and ebullient romantic comedy works an absolute treat.

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Gemma Arterton (replacing Gugu Mbatha-Raw from the Globe run) lights up the stage and is utterly captivating as Nell. The former prostitute is selling oranges at the Theatre Royal when – through sheer cheek and bravado – she gets taken on as an actress by Thomas Killigrew’s King’s Company.

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Swales’ play is an unashamed love letter to the theatre, but she also makes pertinent points about the role of women – both on stage and within society. There is controversy when Nell takes the job and embarks soon after on a romantic relationship with her tutor and the company’s dashing leading man (Jay Taylor).

This was a time, of course, when women didn’t act and all female parts in plays were taken by men. So Nell’s status as one of the country’s first actresses ruffles the feathers of the company member who has always played the female roles. It’s a hilarious turn by Greg Haiste who has some terrific lines that take an affectionate pop at egotistical actors and those bogged down by method.


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It’s not long before Nell attracts the attention of keen theatregoer and serial adulterer King Charles II who takes her home – and into his bed. It causes friction within his court and within the company as Nell neglects her commitment to the stage.

There are nicely played moments between Nell and Jay Taylor as Hart and David Sturzaker as the king, along with often hilarious ensemble scenes featuring the hapless band of players led by Michael Garner (as the increasingly frustrated Killigrew). There’s also an achingly funny turn by Michelle Dotrice as Nell’s dresser, who takes her mistress’s place at rehearsals after yet another no-show. 

Thank goodness Gemma Arterton throws herself so fully into the role. This is a production that lifts the spirits and her wonderful performance is its beating heart.

Nell Gwynn is at the Apollo until 30th April


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