There’s deliciously hammy acting in this production, plus Charles II’s throbbing English sausage and more sexual innuendoes than you can shake a pointy stick at. Jessica Swale’s new play plots the rise (easy, gentlemen) of Nell Gwynn, who first sold her body, then fruit, and ended up a celebrated actress as well as the King’s favourite mistress. This West End transfer from the Globe stars a luminously lascivious Gemma Arterton and, while it won’t be to everyone’s taste, goes down a treat.
Hugh Durrant’s chocolate-box set looks a lot like the Bankside theatre, only with more colour, velvet and excess. All the classic Globe trademarks are here: heaps of live music (composed by Nigel Hess), flouncing chorus boys (Greg Haiste is a treat), a scene with a dog(!) and countless sly winks to the audience. Arterton is charming as hell but there’s something about the play’s persistent jolliness that slightly grates in the closer confines of the Apollo.
Still, there are plenty of gags (Swale can really spin a one-liner) and jolly jigs (and jugs) to be enjoyed in Christopher Luscombe’s bawdy production. There’s also a lot of love for the theatre. Nell’s first acting lesson with renowned Restoration actor Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) is a proper joy. Arterton starts out crass as anything but, when she hits on a moment of genuine sorrow, a collective shiver runs through the stalls.
There’s also a strong feminist angle, as we watch Nell forced to ‘pretend for a living’ both on stage and at Court. This is a woman who cannot afford to be herself. Nell’s finest performance is with the king (David Sturzaker), as she flirts up a storm in order to secure a stable future. The only time Nell’s mask drops is when she is kept away from her beloved Charles’s deathbed – no place for a woman, after all.