How significant is a venue? Does a performance space alone have the power to make or break a play? Of course it depends on the play and on the idiosyncrasies of the space but, in the case of Nell Gwynn, venue has proven very significant indeed.
Whether or not Jessica Swale envisioned her play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre when she penned it, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting home for the bawdy, meta-theatrical comedy – particularly now it has taken up residence instead at the proscenium arch Apollo Theatre.
Swale’s evocation of Nell (or Eleanor) Gwynn’s rags-to-royalty story is a love-letter to the theatre – a celebration of brilliantly eccentric theatre-folk and all that goes into making onstage magic happen.
The cast reject what would be anachronistic naturalism. With direction by Christopher Luscombe (Spamalot, The Rocky Horror Show) they employ a more performative style, facing outwards and interacting with the audience throughout; there’s only a marginal difference between their melodramatic performances to imagined restoration audiences and their ‘off-stage’ scenes.
The demonstrative cast deliver their comic lines – a combination of erudite word-play and less subtle ‘hide the sausage’ gags – with self-awareness; all that’s missing from each punch line is a thigh slap and a ba-dum-ch. Sadly however, in its new dwellings in London’s glittering West End, Nell Gwynn is missing the sort of interactive atmosphere that invites raucous laughter, and instead provokes titters, eye-rolls and audible groans.
That said, if you don’t mind it light, hammy and reminiscent of a drunk uncle, Nell Gwynn is fabulously entertaining. There’s a natty onstage band, snappy songs and even a lesson in the art of fan flirtation.
Act two is particularly amusing, and very moving at times too. However, sentiment is swiftly cut off by crude one-liners, preventing the audience from ever really feeling anything.
New to the role of the acclaimed Restoration actress is Gemma Arterton (The Duchess of Malfi, Made in Dagenham, Quantum of Solace). The charming and spirited Arterton is convincing throughout, as Nell transforms from Drury Lane orange seller to the King’s lover of choice. Arterton can dance and she can sing too, but her predictably flirtatious mannerisms wear a tad thin, rendering the complex and intelligent Nell a bit of a one-trick-pony.
Michele Dotrice (Some Mothers Do Ave ‘Em) is exemplary as company seamstress Nancy, as is Greg Haiste, returning to the role of Edward Kynaston. Haiste’s scintillating energy and comic timing brings real vibrancy to the recognisable character – a devoted actor who begrudgingly relinquishes his female roles to make way for Nell. Ultimately, Edward is the most lovable of the lot.
David Sturzaker, as the charming yet indecisive Charles II, artfully balances comedy and romance. Likewise, a sensitive performance by Jay Taylor does justice to the role of esteemed actor Charles Hart – who infamously schooled Nell in the tricks of the trade.
In brief: Shakespeare in Love meets Monty Python. Nell Gwynn’s remarkable Cinderella story has been given new life in Jessica Swale’s light-hearted, bawdy comedy, but it’s just crying out to be back at the atmospheric, open-air Globe Theatre.