Nell Gwynn, Apollo Theatre, review: Gemma Arterton has cheeky charm

A scene from Nell Gwynn

A scene from Nell Gwynn - Credit: �Tristram Kenton

Plays about 17th and 18th century theatre folk seem all the rage these days with Red Velvet and Mr Foote’s Other Leg making great hay of the backstage camaraderie and mannered acting.

A scene from Nell Gwynn

A scene from Nell Gwynn - Credit: �Tristram Kenton

Jessica Swale’s exuberant, entertaining offering, originally staged at The Globe visits restoration theatre at the moment women were first allowed on stage (by order of the King).

Cue the swift promotion of saucy Drury Lane orange seller Nell to leading comic actress and thence Charles II’s mistress.

Just as Red Velvet explores the seismic effect when reality – a black man playing Othello – intrudes on an artificial medium, so Swale’s feminist inflected drama investigates how women’s bodies on stage changed both plays and audiences.

As Greg Haiste’s hysterical thesp Edward Kynaston shrieks that no-one can play a woman as well as he and argues “people come to the Playhouse to engage with the imaginary,” Nell urges playwright John Dryden to better reflect how real women might react in his scenes.

Swale and director Christopher Luscombe’s problem is this subtler project is jettisoned for a lighthearted bawdy romp complete with Hugh Durrant’s glittering costumes, live music and Nigel Hess’ jolly songs.

The gags feel somewhat belaboured in a first half that still has fun with the havoc of showbusiness. Gemma Arterton has bags of cheeky charm as our shrewd, feisty heroine – you really care when she hits a hard place.

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Act II ushers in courtly politics and David Sturzaker’s droll Charles hints at an isolated figure who genuinely falls for our unaffected working class Nell.

It’s best when affectionately satirising luvvies and peppering in contemporary gags but I was waiting for a scene where Nell performed one of Dryden’s quick-witted comic heroines. It never came.

3/5 stars.

Nell Gwynn is at the Apollo Theatre until April 30.