Laura Pitt-Pulford takes over a title role that's already been played with panache by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Gemma Arterton.
Nell Gwynn play review: Culture Whisper says ★★★★★
'Ladies and gentlemen, the lady's a wit', announces a player as an opinionated Nell Gwynn interrupts his opening prologue. And it is this spark, humour and gumption that's celebrated in Jessica Swale's exuberant new play.
The true story of Nell Gwynn is replete with drama and ripe for stage adaptation. An unparalleled rise from Cheapside orange-seller to favourite courtesan and darling of the Restoration stage is the stuff of fairytales.
Gemma Arterton is magnificent in the titular role. She delivers her bawdy one-liners and the emotional scenes with equal panache – and what a voice. And Greg Haiste as cross-dressing former Desdemona threatened by real women on stage gives a fiercely funny rant: 'no woman can play a woman as well as I can play a woman'.
As scenes shift from the king's court to the playhouse, the Duke's Company dramas (on and off stage) are as much at heart of the play as Nell. Meta-theatrical jokes mock the misogyny of the 17th century and beyond and there's plenty of knowing laughter at remarks over shallow female roles.
Bookish types and theatre veterans will enjoy the smattering of highbrow humour (a bumbling John Donne and his bonkers re-write of The Tempest had us tittering). But, much like 2014's West End adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, there is no context or expertise required to enjoy Nell Gwynn and get swept along with the story. With songs, jigs and jubilant innuendoes, it's uplifting and utterly entertaining.
Some may be disappointed that there's more playfulness than profundity; we see the Nell that captivated the public and put on a show, and only hear snippets of her impoverished upbringing and prostitution. But, there's still substance to this comedy. Jessica Swale's writing deftly draws out a woman who remains, 400 years later, truly remarkable. And, in its portrayal of Restoration theatre, this new play celebrates traditional drama and the progress we have since made.
By its very definition, Shakespeare's Globe is steeped in a history dominated by male playwrights and male actors. So it's a delight to see that both 2015's contemporary writing offerings — The Heresy of Love and now Nell Gwynn — show masterful female playwrights putting fascinating women in the spotlight. And even more pleasing that this story has come to the West End.
|What||Nell Gwynn, The Globe 2017 re-run|
|Where||Apollo Theatre, 31 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 7ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Piccadilly Circus (underground)|
02 May 17 – 13 May 17, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£ 25 - £52.50|
|Website||Click here to book via The Globe|