Review: Nell Gwynn Starring Gemma Arterton

Posted on 19 February 2016

Three and a half centuries ago, Nell Gwynn was entertaining crowds with her tremendous wit and stage presence. Today, Gemma Arterton is doing exactly the same thing, while portraying one of the first actresses ever to take to a British stage.

Nell Gwynn has all the components of the plays that Britain fell in love back in the 1600s such as the clever use of wordplay and bawdy humour. Gemma Arterton is perfect for this role, bringing bags of attitude and likeability to Jessica Swale’s brilliant play. Nell Gwynn is punchy, fun and completely unapologetic in every way.

Nell Gwynn was plucked from her life as an orange seller to join the King’s Company before eventually becoming a mistress to Charles II. Nell was a trailblazer for the countless generations of actresses that followed her. It is hard to imagine a world where it was unheard of for a female role to be played by an actual female but that was the reality back when Nell was starting out. The play follows Nell as she rises in fame and grapples with her own identity; is she still the same bawdy orange seller from the slums of London or a sophisticated lady of the King’s Court?

Going in knowing very little about Nell Gwynn and her life, I was surprised by how rude it was! The play has so many innuendos and puns, in keeping with the Elizabethan/Restoration comedies that Nell performed. However the comedy isn’t resigned to raunchy humour at all, I picked up so many different types of comedy that had the audience in stitches. Satire, self-awareness, slapstick and sarcasm, all brilliantly written and directed. The funniest characters were Edward Kynaston (Greg Haiste), the actor who specialises in female roles, Nancy (Michele Dotrice), the dresser at the theatre and John Dryden (Nicholas Shaw), the resident playwright at the theatre.

Gemma Arterton was fantastic in the title role; she seemed to embody Nell’s spirit perfectly. Despite being a play, Nell Gwynn does contain a few musical interludes but only in the context of Nell’s performances in the theatre. Her experience singing in Made In Dagenham meant that she could carry these ditties with confidence and power, giving the show an uplifting, feel-good mood. She gives the play the star power that it needs to capture the huge personality of Nell and how it affected those around her.

The whole company was fantastic to watch, from Ned (Peter McGovern), the actor in training at the theatre, to Charles II himself (David Sturzaker). Each character brought something new and usually hilarious to the show as a whole; despite having a big name involved, Nell Gwynn’s success must be credited to the entire ensemble. The only weak points lay with the men in Nell’s life, Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) and Charles II; their characters were simply too small to compete with Nell’s and ended up as some of the more bland and boring characters. Their dialogue lacked the spark that Nell possessed and so I was left wondering why Nell didn’t go and find someone more interesting!

Aside from Nell, there were four other large female characters that deserve a mention. Sasha Waddell played Lady Castlemaine, Charles’ ambitious mistress, and Louise de Kéroualle, his new French mistress. Sarah Woodward played Old Ma Gwynn, Nell’s brothel owner mother, and Queen Catherine, Charles’ Portuguese wife. The French mistress and Queen Catherine were absolutely hilarious; the audience knew exactly what they were talking about even though it was in a foreign language, a gag reminiscent of Miriam Margolyes in Blackadder.

I loved the attention to detail and all the design aspects involved, including all of Nell’s beautiful dresses and hair. The musicians added another layer of Restoration excellance with their violins, recorders and chalumeaux. Nell Gwynn will transport you back to the time when fiery females were shocking and delighting audiences for the first time, maybe even paving the way for today’s bold performers like Madonna and Lady Gaga. Gwynn may not be ideal for families due to the crude humour regarding Nell’s various occupations but it’s certainly a great show to watch with friends. I would highly recommend going to see Nell Gwynn, you’re sure to come out with a smile on your face!

By Harriet Hards

Harriet has spent all her sixteen years singing non-stop to musicals such as Mary Poppins, Les Mis and Cats. Her hobbies include writing on her blog, acting and making obscure references to West End lyrics, much to the annoyance of her friends and family.