A Samuel Pepys exhibition opening at the National Maritime Museum. Plans to build a new theatre on the site of Shakespeare’s Curtain. Two plays about Nell Gwynn opening in the space of a month. It’s 2016, but seventeenth-century London is very now.
Just a fortnight ago, Steve Trafford’s The Restoration Of Nell Gwyn opened at Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre, but she is already treading the boards in the west end again in Jessica Swales’ Nell Gwynn, which has transferred from its original home at The Globe and stars the irresistible Gemma Arterton in the title role. It’s a rich, rollicking feast of a show that doesn’t take itself too seriously and positively dances with exuberance. One can’t help but wonder, however, whether Christopher Luscombe’s lavish production works as well in the cramped Apollo as it did on the South Bank last autumn.
Swales’ play follows Nell from her time as an potty-mouthed orange-seller, via her celebrated heyday as an actress with the King’s Company, to her years as the beloved mistress of Charles II. It’s a fairy-tale story full of arrogant actors and callous courtiers, and Arterton winks and weaves her plucky way through it all, a sly grin never far from her cheeks and a quick-witted innuendo never far from her lips. Hers is a performance that oozes a charisma. She is always playing games, always teasing, always the centre of attention.
Arterton is ably supported by David Sturzaker as the foppish King Charles II, and Jay Taylor as the full-blooded leading man Charles Kent – a David Garrick type, brimming with a commanding bravura. Greg Haste also has a wonderful comic turn as the indignant female impersonator cast aside in favour of Arterton’s all-natural Nell. The entire ensemble thrash out Swales’ stonking script with gusto, playing it for laughs on the whole and making the most of the bawdy jokes and meta-theatrical ironies. Sideways glances and not-so-subtle winks to the audience are never far away.
There are decidedly more hits than misses, but a great deal of this almost-melodrama feels slightly too much, perhaps because Luscombe’s production originally ran at The Globe where it had the scale to be over-the-top and an audience keen to play the part of seventeenth-century rabble. A slight dialling down would greatly finesse the comedy, as well as give breathing space to the play’s more sensitive moments. There are deeper comments on monarchic responsibility, on female empowerment, and on the nature of theatre somewhere here, but at present they are buried beneath a whirlwind of hummable tunes, ridiculous accents and penis jokes.
From the extravagant hairstyles – Sasha Waddell’s sculpted auburn curls are quite something to behold – to the lavish, chintzy set, Hugh Durrant’s design is pitch perfect. It’s a jumbled mess of sweeping satin sashes, terracotta busts and gloriously loud costumes – the fanciness and fuss of the late 17th century bottled on stage.
Nell Gwynn is a thumping show, grand in scope and unapologetically brash in tone. It is never subtle or distressing, but it doesn’t really need to be. It’s high-spirited and ebullient throughout – a rich Restoration romp, through and through.