Nell Gwynn, Apollo Theatre, review: A populist but big-hearted show

It even features a King Charles spaniel, just in case Arterton’s own puppy-dog eyes haven’t melted your heart

Jessica Swale’s play about 17th century orange-seller turned actress Nell Gwynn is as ripe and juicy as the fruits its heroine hawks. This broad and bawdy take on history transfers from the Globe, bringing on Gemma Arterton as its leading lady. Although in early scenes, Arterton’s simpering Cockney accent can grate, she soon won me over. A luminously lovely Nell, her softness makes filthy ditties and practical jokes seem cutely cheeky rather than rude.  

Gwynn was one of the first actresses on the British stage, and Swale assigns her plenty of agency – she practically writes her own parts. She becomes the mistress of King Charles II (saucy David Sturzaker); they’re shown as properly in love, glossing over any unease at our feminist heroine actually being a kept woman.

This is a populist, fluffy, but big-hearted show, directed by Christopher Luscombe with extreme silliness; special mention must go to Michele Dotrice, whose comic timing as a befuddled wardrobe mistress reliably slays the audience. Nell Gwynn is stuffed with salacious jokes, knowing theatrical references, and the odd nod to our own times - a down-with-austerity line is met with cheers. It even features a King Charles spaniel, just in case Arterton’s own puppy-dog eyes haven’t melted your heart. 

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