Sitting down at the Apollo with a few friends, I realised that I didn’t know a whole lot about Nell Gwynn. I knew vaguely that she’d once been a prostitute, became a stage actress – famous in her day – and won lots of admirers including the King.
Broadly speaking that’s right, and although I couldn’t definitively say that this stage play written by Jessica Swale, and transferring to the West End from The Globe, is biographically accurate, it delves somewhat more into her life.
Gemma Arterton plays Gwynn. We see her first as an orange seller sitting at the foot of the stage at the King’s Company’s theatre. This was a time when men played all the parts, and indeed playing a woman was a specialist skill. Thomas Killgrew (Michael Garner) leads the company and he sees something in Gwynn that he likes. So he gives her acting lessons, and before you know it she’s appearing on stage with the rest of the company, despite the best efforts of Edward Kynaston (Greg Haiste) who plays the default female role in the company.
Before you know it, the King himself (David Sturzaker) has spotted the charms of Gwynn, and she is being hoisted into a world of private apartments and ladies in waiting.
The play is the very definition of bawdy, from an hilarious song from Gywnn early on which she uses to win her place in the theatre, delivered with gusto by Arterton, to practically pantomine lines at various points. The audience is very much a character here. There are knowing winks and lines for the audience aplenty.
The stage we see is the stage of the Bridges Street Theatre, appearing very much in the style of the Globe where this play premiered.
The play rips along without concerning itself too much with the distasteful parts of Gwynn’s life – how young was she as a prostitute? But we do get asides suggesting that some punters paid to watch actors dress or get undressed! And at one point a production of Lady Godiva is suggested as a way of packing in audiences. I note that Mrs Henderson Presents… has recently reached the West End stage. A case of having your cake and eating it?
But it’s Arterton who shines here. She’s perfectly cast in the role with song, dance, and knowing glances at the audience a plenty. Well worth seeing.