Reviews West End & Central Published 21 February 2016

Review: Nell Gwynn at the Apollo

Apollo Theatre ⋄ Until 30th April 2016

Huge hats and tiny dogs abound in this luscious West End transfer for Jessica Swale’s play.

Alice Saville
David Sturzaker as Charles II and Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn in 'Nell Gwynn' at the Apollo Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir

David Sturzaker as Charles II and Gemma Arterton as Nell Gwynn in ‘Nell Gwynn’ at the Apollo Theatre. Photo: Alastair Muir

What do you do if history isn’t quite how you’d like to be? Do you throw it away and start again? Do you massage it with tender, loving hands until it melts into something a bit more lovable?

The 17th century comedies that revived London theatre after its Puritan slumbers are archly witty, but their radical sexual politics are buried in convoluted plots. So Jessica Swale’s ‘Nell Gwynn’ takes the second approach, giving the world of Restoration theatre an affectionate pummel until it’s dimpled and sweet as the oranges its titular heroine sells. Nell’s a sexually liberated woman, a happy hawker who flogs fruit from a basket to punters who flock to the theatre for all-male plays that Swales slightly unfairly casts as contrived, and sentimental. But there’s something just as contrived about Gwynn’s own, completely genuine, narrative. She’s spotted by the company’s charismatic actor-manager and given some lessons in acting and love – before snaring the heart of King Charles II and ensconcing herself as mistress.

As you might imagine, plenty of critics have made comparisons with Shakespeare in Love, with its shared plotline of a woman acting in a men’s world. But there are other comparisons, too, with a whole world of backstage comedies that centre on moments of transition in theatre’s history: from Gypsy (the death of Vaudeville) to Singing in the Rain (the introduction of sound). There’s even a touch of Lina Lamont to its wildly camp specialist in female roles and the arcane language of the fan, as he condemns the humdrum lives of the public with airy gestures.

The opposition that all these scripts set up is the stiff, archaic world of the old, and the sexually daring thrill of the new. And Gemma Arterton is a winning choice to embody all the possibilities of a new drama. She simpers in blouson tops that are only held on to her shoulders by a string of ribbon or pearls – or, in the second act, by a combination of charisma and some kind of serious concealed underwiring.

Her earthy wit and relentless eye-rolling puns are set up in opposition with Restoration’s theatre culture – Swale’s endearingly partial take on history is particularly down on the company’s resident playwright anti-John Dryden – the merits of his precise, satirical style are lost in endless parody of his derivative plots (The Enchanted Island is an avowed retelling of The Tempest, so Swales makes him suggest new ideas for plays right up to a hilarious riff on Titanic), and any hope of taking him seriously is lost for good in a wig that wreaths his face in carrot-coloured curls.

But then, we’re not meant to take any of this seriously – Swales’s play inhabits a kind of luscious fantasy land that draws on Restoration texts that described acting as a series of ‘attitudes’. Each player moves between a series of hundreds of predetermined poses, lovingly spelt out by scribes who must have been the 17th century equivalent of D&D rulebook writers.

Sometimes, though, it feels as if we could soar a bit higher into this heightened universe. Nell Gwynn’s pulls an elaborate hat-based burn on King Charles’s new French mistress, mocking her capacious chapeau by singing a bawdy Franglais ditty in a masterpiece of millinery big enough to use as an emergency coracle.

A tiny, immaculate King Charles’ spaniel steals the show, yapping at the heels of Gwynn’s skirts that threaten to engulf him whole, like a predatory amoeba.

But elsewhere, there’s a few too many of the distinctive kind of laugh when people “get” a clever line they suspect everyone else is missing: the grunt of recognition at a half-remembered Shakespeare plot or a snippet of GCSE French.

With the distancing effect of the Apollo’s proscenium arch, we’re not always in on the joke – there’s just no room for the expansive, groundling-rallying ribaldry of the play’s original run at The Globe.

Instead, we’re in the safer land of the panto-style wink, wink, nudge at an audience that’s firmly in Nell Gwynn’s pockets – and Arterton’s performance is as determinedly perky whether there’s sixpence or a king’s ransom in them. In a world where the very real threats of syphilis and the fire of London are no more than punchlines, we need a little something more to set body and soul alight.

Nell Gwynn is on at the Apollo Theatre until 30th April. You can book tickets here.

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Alice Saville

Alice is editor of Exeunt, as well as working as a freelance arts journalist for publications including Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Raddington_B

Review: Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Show Info


Directed by Christopher Luscombe

Written by Jessica Swale

Cast includes Gemma Arterton, Paige Carter, Michele Dotrice, Matthew Durkan, Michael Garner, Greg Haiste, George Jennings, Ellie Leah, Peter McGovern, David Rintoul, Anneika Rose, Nicholas Shaw, David Sturzaker, Jay Taylor, Sasha Waddell, Sarah Woodward

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