In the 17th century, when King Charles II came to the throne in 1660, the Restoration period is one of great interest in terms of the development of theatre. Not only was this a time where women were first allowed onto the English stage but it is also a time when then monarch had a huge interest in the theatre and what (and who) he saw there.
King Charles II spent a lot of time in Europe and brought back many of their ideals when he came to the throne. A known womaniser, he wanted to attend theatres to see women, to be able to engage them in conversation and then to make them his mistress. He had many affairs and made many of the women he romanced very wealthy and endowed them with titles and estates. The most famous of all of his mistresses is Nell Gwynn, the subject of a play just opened at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue after transferring from the Globe.
The play is set against this backdrop of sex and scandal and is punctuated with a number of delightful songs, many of which stay with you long after the curtain has come down.
Gemma Arterton plays the lead and gives a sterling performance. A wonderful cast including show stealer Michelle Doltrice ably supports her. Doltrice plays the wonderfully sweet but dotty Nancy, the wardrobe mistress in the theatre. She executes the part with superb comic timing and great skill. She is a delight to see in any production. I recently saw her in The Importance of Being Ernest opposite David Suchet, where she also gave a wonderful performance. The world needs more of Michelle Doltrice.
Jessica Swale’s script is full of humour, much of it bawdy and fitting for the time. While not in any way is the play meant to be historically accurate, it uses instead real events on which to hang Swale’s imagined meetings between King and Actress. The Protestant Whore, as Gwynn proclaims herself is a strong woman who can hold her own and look after herself. She refuses a title and we see that she is genuinely in love with the King and he with her which provides some touching scenes throughout the course of the play, both heart-warming and terribly tragic for this love comes at a cost.
Nell knows she is only a mistress, one of many, and certainly not Queen nor can she ever be. She has to sacrifice friends, her career and her family to be with the man she loves.
Arterton’s performance, a return to the London stage after the far too short run of Made in Dagenham is a triumph and she commands the stage wonderfully, almost as if the part was written for her. Let’s hope we see more of her in the future
The whole play is a delightful romp, is you pardon the expression, from start to finish and I would implore you to catch it while you can over at the Apollo on Shaftesbury Avenue. The limited run ends on April 30th, so get your tickets for a night of rollicking Restoration revelry!
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