To put you in the picture a little: Nell Gwynn is the story of one of the first actresses to take to the stage in London – the same woman who was famous for being Charles II's mistress. In a country full of people who disagree with the concept of female actresses (the horror!), but who adore strict social circles and huge French hats, Nell Gwynn defies convention and, propelled by an exuberant character and a lot of innuendos, manages to rise in influence.
Swale's production is bursting with well-handled humour. Her writing, combined with Gemma Arterton's performance of the title role, creates a show that is fast paced, playful and fantastic fun – the perfect light entertainment. It made me think a little of Wilde's subtitle for The Importance of Being Earnest: “a trivial comedy for serious people”.
Anybody with the slightest hint of a sense of humour will love this production. What's not to love? It is feel-good, easy to enjoy, and has real substance to it. I already want to go and see it again.
Having, as I said, seen some of Swale's productions in a tiny theatre in Newbury, I did wonder whether the show might be a little too small for the West End. However, I was entirely wrong; the space on the stage and in the theatre was not at all wasted and, given the standard of the show, I would suggest that Nell Gwynn more than amply lives up to the expectations of a West End show.
In terms of casting, I could find no faults at all. Gemma Arterton carried the tone of the show on her shoulders, and filled the stage with vivacity and liveliness. I can no longer imagine Nell Gwynn as being anybody but Arterton. The rest of the cast were somewhat overshadowed by their leading lady – fittingly, considering her character – but they were all extremely impressive. Jay Taylor's performance of the character Charles Hart was particularly well done.
The set of the show was smart and well-used within the production: a stage on a stage. I particularly liked the fact that the musicians (who were simply superb) were visible throughout the show, occupying an area of the balcony above the stage. This allowed them to interact a lot with the show, which was great fun to see.
This would hardly be a worthwhile review if I did not pay tribute to the absolutely humongous hat which featured in a superbly hilarious French song (of which I only really understood the occasional reference to“Crème Brûlèe”). Carried on by a whole troupe of cast members, the hat completely stole the spotlight in one of the most enjoyable scenes in the production. Even without the hat, the costumes in Nell Gwynn were absolutely wonderful.
Although by no means a musical, the few songs played within Nell Gwynn added a lot of energy to the production and, if there was a CD, I would buy it.
Nell Gwynn tickets can be found at very reasonable prices; London Theatre Direct sell them from around £30. Considering how enjoyable the show is, it is well worth the money and the journey to London; if you get the chance, I would strongly recommend seeing the show before it closes at the end of April.
All in all, I cannot find fault in this show. If you like comedies that are engaging, fast-paced, playful and clever, you will absolutely love Nell Gwynn, and should definitely catch it whilst you can.