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Nell Gwynn review at Shakespeare’s Globe – ‘warm and sympathetic’

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Sturzaker in Nell Gwynn. Photo: Tristram Kenton Gugu Mbatha-Raw and David Sturzaker in Nell Gwynn. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Nell Gwynn has become a mythic figure: the orange seller turned actress who became King’s consort. Jessica Swale’s play for the Globe – a follow up to her acclaimed debut, Blue Stockings, a celebration of some of the first women to pursue a university education – attempts to make a person of her again. It’s not completely successful in doing so, but thanks to Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s radiance in the title role, it is a warm and sympathetic reclamation.

Swale’s play is at its most engaging when evoking the theatre of the late 17th century, when women were only just being permitted to set foot upon the stage and were often regarded as little more than prostitutes, a pair of tits to be gawped at. A love for theatre runs through the play and it is to Nell the actress that David Sturzaker’s Charles II is first attracted. Sturzaker, such a brilliant Bolingbroke earlier in the Globe’s summer season in Richard II, does some fine work here, his Charles a nuanced, human monarch, the love between him and his Nell very real.

Christopher Luscombe’s production is a solid enough thing, though some of the jokes are as broad as a royal box: Amanda Lawrence does some superior scenery-eating and there’s, perhaps inevitably, a comedy bit with a dog – a spaniel in this case – but underlying this bawdiness and levity there’s a resonant message about visibility. Underscoring Swale’s play is call for writers to pen richer, realer female characters and for the womaning of our stages to continue – because it is a journey that’s far from over.

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A warm and sympathetic attempt to humanise a historic figure with a radiant performance at its centre