Review: Nell Gwynn, Apollo Theatre

“But the theatre isn’t glamorous”, I’ve heard my friends say countless of times. “Film is so much more powerful, naturalistic and international.” Don’t get me wrong, film is all of those things. And definitely more glamorous than an experimental fringe venue in the London underworld can ever claim. But there’s something indescribably charming about theatre with its feet solidly planted on the ground, and moments that just ‘are’ and will never be again. Which is why the Globe’s Nell Gwynn, now at the Apollo Theatre, is such a heart-warming piece of entertainment, however “un-glamorous” it might be. As well as depicting the life of the witty mistress of Charles II and her stage career, it celebrates the medium of theatre, how unpredictable and inclusive of the audience it is. Playing with the conventions of the time of restoration comedy, the audience is constantly invited into the world of the actors. As the puns fly and witty comments about the theatrical world hit us, the audience roar with a delight that’s rarely experienced anywhere else.

Nell (Gemma Arterton) sells oranges on Drury Lane and is known for her fast tongue and outspoken manners. When the leading actor of the time, Charles Hart (Jay Taylor), introduces her to the world of acting, her life takes a spin in a right Cinderella fashion. As one of the first women on stage, she is spotted by King Charles II (David Sturzaker) and soon finds herself at court as his favourite mistress. But politics and love never seem to mix very well and she finds herself torn between her old life and love for the king. With Hugh Durrant’s set design much in the style of the time, but with a quirky theatricality about it, we are transported to a world of playfulness and bawdy jokes, with a rural and uplifting accompaniment by musicians above. The Globe’s flair for Shakespeare and his contemporaries shines through Jessica Swale’s brilliant writing, which with its tone close to modern farce finds the right balance between the audience’s contemporary ear and the historical accuracy of the setting.

Arterton is nothing but phenomenal as Nell, with a wonderful charm that empowers the whole stage and company. Her comical timing and presence is what makes us all fall in love with Nell at an instant. Arterton is supported by a fantastic ensemble of on-point actors, all with an incredible ear for language and humour. Jay Taylor and David Sturzaker both match her as her two Charleses, and Michele Dotrice is just a sheer joy as Nancy with her awkwardness onstage. Everyone, from Greg Haiste’s intensely frustrated Kynaston to Sarah Woodward’s flaming Portuguese-cursing Queen Catherine, transforms the Apollo into an incredibly uplifting and notoriously fun evening, directed with a pot of comical genius by Christopher Luscombe.

Nell Gwynn isn’t glamourous – it’s bawdy, tremendously fun and full of warmth and wit. It brings the audience arm in arm with Gwynn and her spark and certainly reminded me why I love going to the theatre.

Nell Gwynn is playing at the Apollo Theatre until 11 September. For more information and tickets, see the Shakespeare’s Globe website. Photo: Tristram Kenton