NELL GWYNN Apollo, W1

A RESTORATION OF HIGH SPIRITS..
Looking back at this play’s first outing – in the outdoor, summery, rackety pleasure that is Shakespeare’s Globe – I remember actually liking it far less than Jessica Swale’s last play there – the excellent BLUESTOCKINGS. Somehow I seem to have emerged in a mere three-mouse mood, despite all the fun, froth and bracing feminism of our heroine: low-born mistress of Charles II, orange seller, actress. Was even a touch dubious despite all the happy sentimental references to theatre itself, reborn and daring after the dreary Cromwell years (there’s always a cheer for the King’s “Playhouses are a valuable national asset! Down with austerity!”) . At the time though, I seem to have found its jokes a bit too knowingly Blackadderish, its bawdy too obvious.

Well, to hell with me. Now it’s come indoors, I must beg you to ignore all that and be assured that this is a Restoration riot to restore the spirits: a hoot, a perfect winter treat. It’s gorgeously set in courtly gold tassels, velvet and the tacky backstage paraphernalia of Mr Killigrew’s theatre where Nell becomes one of the first women onstage. The show is still larger than life, very Globeish, rumbustious, jokey and joyous with great running gags like the gloomy presence of a ginger-wigged Dryden forever trying to knock out a new play in the corner and coming up with unusable plots (one of which is Titanic).

But for some reason, Christopher Luscombe’s production works better here than at the Globe. Maybe because it feels more intimate than it did from high above, since we are all (albeit seated) groundlings able to enjoy the glances, grins, flounces and double-takes. The “Cheapside whore” harnesses her tough rude street wit to light up the stage, affronting the horrified Mr Kynaston who previously had the women’s parts to himself with his fake linen books , and charms the restless insecure King with her insistence on being a girlfriend – a defiant and mouthy one – rather than a courtier.

David Sturzaker reprises the role of Charles II, showing a nice edge of vulnerability amid his shrieking competitive entourage of one Portuguese Queen, one arrogant British mistress and one politically necessary French one. Swale makes it credible that his need to add Nell to his life was a hunger for earthiness, honest bread-and-butter love and cheek alongside these overdressed toxic meringues. Gemma Arterton, in her best stage role yet, reveals a gift as a comedienne: sexy and mischievous, light as a feather and nonpareil at delivering a truly dirty song, yet able in the second half, to expose vulnerability and seriousness in her pregnancy, banishment from her lover’s deathbed, and shy saddened return to the stage family. She is, in her own words, a woman uninterested in “flopsome fops” but genuinely drawn to the reality of the lonely King. Any man she takes in company must, as she says, accept that women are “just as nutty and tangled as you are”.

Greg Haiste, I am happy to say, reprises his role as queeny Kynaston jealously guarding the female lead roles: when he flounces offstage it is with all the comic affront of Stephen Fry leaving Twitter. Michele Dotrice is pure delight as Nancy the dresser, who unexpectedly can translate the French whore’s insults because she once “‘Had a Thing with Moliere’s dresser”. There are jokes about Swift and cross-Channel politics, spirited songs by Nigel Hess slyly referencing the music-hall of two centuries later, a real life King Charles spaniel, and a gigantic comedy hat. It is pure essence of fun. And if only the RSC would bring into London its fabulous Queen Anne, those of us who were taught history really badly could skip on 17 years from the end of this play, and improve our education no end.

Box office 0330 333 4809 http://www.nimaxtheatres.com to 30 April
Rating four 4 Meece Rating

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