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Nell Gwynn review at the Apollo Theatre – ‘Gemma Arteton is ravishing’

Gemma Arterton in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre. Photo:Tristram Kenton Gemma Arterton in Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre. Photo:Tristram Kenton
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A cheer goes up when Charles II, a devoted fan of live theatre, replies to an adviser who suggests that he’s frittered away funds on “oversized playhouses”, calling them “a valuable national asset.” The audience cheer again when he adds, “What’s the point of having a country if its sapped of all joy? Down with austerity!”

That said, and as Jessica Swale’s play makes clear, there are other reasons why the King is such a regular at the theatre. He’s fallen hard for fruit seller-turned-actress Nell Gwynn. Swale’s play is about a love affair which takes place in the theatre but is also of the theatre, and for anyone who shares that love it makes for one of the most joyous and magical evenings to be had on the London stage at the moment.

Nell Gwynn is a wonderful, warm-hearted and generous piece of theatrical history, performed with just the right amount of affection and affectation. Christopher Luscombe’s production mines Swale’s writing for every ounce of comedy.

It’s also rich in court politics and the simultaneous isolation and indulgence of royal office, as well as the preoccupations of actors which resonates across the ages.

Premiering at the Globe last summer and running for just 11 performances, it now moves indoors to the opulent Apollo for a longer three month season, continuing the Globe’s winning streak – its production of Farinelli and the King also recently transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre.

Just as that show combined music with performance, here composer Nigel Hess’s gorgeous compositions co-exists organically with a cast who light up the stage. Every role is superbly performed – there’s even a scene-stealing dog. Gemma Arterton, new to the show and replacing Gugu Mbatha-Raw, is ravishing in the title role, and she’s strongly supported by David Sturzaker, as the King and Greg Hastie, Jay Taylor, Michele Dotrice, Michael Garner and Nicholas Shaw, as the various actors, dressers, managers and playwrights in the theatre company.

Nell Gwynn at the Apollo Theatre: our round-up of the reviews

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Bawdy and brilliant West End transfer of Jessica Swale’s vivacious comedy