No, no, no, no, no! You miss the point entirely. Theatre is artifice. It’s make-believe. Pretend. The blood is not real blood. Othello’s not a real Moor. People come to the Playhouse to engage with the imaginary. For a short break from their wretched, drivel-filled lives they can escape. Who’d go to the theatre to see real people saying real things about real life? That would be preposterous! We trade in magic. And we are trained to do it. Honed, groomed, athletes of the imagination. And these women – what training have they had, eh? I want nothing to do with it. The whole thing stinks!

These are the words of Kynaston, the enraged effeminate star of the King’s Company known for playing the female parts in plays. He is discussing the heresy of women participating in the theatre. It’s a funny and slightly ridiculous scene. Kynaston is no match for Nell Gwynn and he and the audience know it.

But the scene is also emblematic of a wider issue that the surface jollity and exuberance of the text glosses over but never abandons: women get an unfair deal in theatre. They always did and they still do.

This is Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale’s truly wonderful play now playing at the Apollo Theatre following a sold out first run at the Globe. Gwynn was a real historical figure, but the play is not historically accurate although it strives – and succeeds admirably – in evoking both the spirit of the times and the spirit of a remarkable woman who literally changed the course of theatrical endeavour forever. But it is also a celebration of women in the theatre and a timely, perhaps critical, wry reminder of how important the better sex are to the theatre, as well as life, and how they should be revered.

I cannot recall the last time I sat in a theatre (discounting musicals) and smiled continuously for the entire playing time, except for those moments I laughed out loud or cried, either with joy or in sorrow. But this was such a time.

Swale has written a really cracking play, an ode to theatre, a riff on Shakespeare, a kind of pastiche comedy river of unending frivolity – but one that oozes charm, insight and heart. It also serves as a minor history lesson and a modern allegory. It’s as wonderful as Shakespeare In Love, if not better. It is safe to say there has not been a play like Nell Gwynn on the West End stage in a decade or more.

It is full of delicious set-ups and brilliant one liners: I took her for a punt as soon as I set eyes on her.

There is a certain Carry On gang feel to some of the comedy, but this is not to denigrate Swale’s achievement; rather, it is an example of the acuity of her writing. The King’s Company is full of distinct characters, eccentric types each of whom is both funny and real, but who knit together beautifully to create a glorious whole. Some of the jokes strike the audience quickly, others roll across the auditorium like a wave, gaining momentum and then crashing in a wild swirl of hilarity. Often a cast member will wait on stage in silence for the penny to drop – even watching that is funny, exhilarating even. Playing with the audience to ensure they don’t miss out – a rare skill, but here, finely honed.

Equally though, quite a lot of Swale’s cleverness is not laboured and if one is not paying attention or is unaware of the historical context of Nell Gwynn, comic gems, perfectly polished, might be missed. It is not every day that the phrase “In Coventry” can bring down the house but it does here – but only to those who understand why. There are also many playful gags about Shakespeare including an excellent visual one that takes the mickey out of Hamlet. So, while a gleeful comedy, Swale’s play rewards rapt concentration.

This is the best thing Christopher Luscombe has directed for the West End and you can see the sense of company radiate from the stage, perhaps a legacy of his work on the Love’s Labour’s Lost/Love’s Labour’s Won season for the RSC. It never flags. The comedy propels the pace (rather than, as is often the case, the other way around) but there is plenty of time for texture and nuance in terms of character, relationships and difficult, tragic situations. The unashamed use of a gorgeous puppy is as critical to the success of the play as the perfect timing and the splendid integration of music.

Nigel Hess has provided quite fabulous music to bolster the joys here. The tunes are bright, snappy, catchy and exuberant. They feel like they might be sending up the style of the time, in a sort of Spamalot fashion, but it is more than that: the song and dance sections seduce the audience, liven them up and set them up for the darker parts of Gwynn’s tale. The musicians play superbly and the attack of the cast is faultless. For a company of actors, the harmonies are beautifully conveyed, the diction excellent, the style exactly right. Charlotte Broom’s choreography is breathlessly good – some of the routines are deathless, cod and perfect; others ring with unfettered ebullience.

The design from Hugh Durrant is beautiful to look at and full of surprises. Given it is a transfer from the Globe, there is a certain inevitability about some aspects of it, but, on the other hand, the Globe design is perfect and works perfectly in the Apollo’s Proscenium arch. Indeed, the whole setting of the action in a gloriously old-fashioned theatre enhances everything about it – the all-pervading presence of the theatre never evaporates. At key points, and without any detraction from the narrative’s pulse, the fourth wall is broken to great effect and everything about Durrant’s set permits this. Vastly disparate locations are evoked effortlessly. Costumes are sumptuous when they need to be and plain when they need to be. The outfit Nell wears as the second Act opens is extraordinarily beautiful, worthy of any Opera House production, and the outfits for the Court exude opulence.

Nick Richings’ lighting is unerringly perfect. Recreating the sense of the then stage lighting, darkening the stage ominously for Charles’ speech dissolving Parliament, flooding the area with joyous happy light in the big numbers – everything is beautifully judged, perfectly executed. There are no jarring transitions, no odd shadows. Tremendous work.

The performances are, across the board, wonderful. This is one of the best, evenly matched ensemble companies seen in the West End in recent years. There are no dud performances, only award winning ones. From George Jennings’ one line servant to David Sturzaker’s immaculate Charles II, the men acquit themselves exceptionally. Sturzaker is particularly impressive. When he first appears, Charles seems a dull, typically disdainful creature and one fears for the future. But Sturzaker knows what he is doing: he transforms Charles from a wet, tiresome drudge monarch to a happy, loving, brave and quite adorable King. This is the undeniable effect of Nell’s influence in his life: she brings his bud to bloom. Sturzaker’s skill in conveying this is complete; it’s a finely judged world class turn.

Sturzaker has excellent company. Nicholas Shaw is in tip top form as the necessary but put upon author, Dryden; a comic gem of a performance. As Ned Spigget, the male ingénue of the King’s Company, Peter McGovern is pitch-perfect, casually conveying his adoration for Nell, his reticence in front of his betters, and landing every joke he can find. Michael Garner, channelling Michael Horden, is frenetic and ruddy cheeked, wonderful as the not-in-control Killagrew who runs the King’s Company. He conveys the sense of desperation and exasperation that inevitably comes with producing theatre, but he also conveys Killagrew’s absolute commitment to the form.

David Rintoul seems to be playing Jafar or Scar more than Lord Arlington, but his obvious Disney villain approach works well enough. A more subtle line in vicious contempt might reap greater rewards, but Rintoul’s approach certainly works. Like some love-child of Kenneth Williams and Peter Capaldi, Greg Hastie is a spluttering, muttering, narcisstic diva afraid of the advance of women in his domain; his Kynaston is deeply tragic as well as surface funny. Hastie conveys Kynaston’s infatuation with King’s Company leading man, Charles Hart, with seething ease. He should get an award for fan acting – at least.

Perhaps the hardest part in the play goes to Jay Taylor – Charles Hart. Vain but passionate, dedicated to the theatre but enjoying his own spotlight a little too much, Hart is essential to Nell’s progress but also her biggest obstacle. The Hart/Gwynn paradigm riffs on the Higgins/Eliza tale: Hart takes the rough Nell and transforms her into a favourite of the stage, a real star. But he also thinks that she is his plaything, rather as Higgins does Eliza. Taylor plays this with finely detailed acumen; the scene where he turns on Nell is very hard to watch, very real. It is a tribute to Taylor that he engages the audience sufficiently to hurt them when he hurts Nell. His rehabilitation is hard won, but again Taylor makes it work very very well.

For all the skill, the great skill, the men bring to the table here, Nell Gwynn belongs to the women. And the women here seize every opportunity with lusty, unalloyed charm, skill, and irresistible talent.

Anneka Rose is pure bliss as Nell’s sweet sister, Rose. She is full of happy energy, but shows her mettle when she needs to cut through Nell’s self-centredness. Sarah Woodward achieves that rarest of on stage abilities: she plays two quite distinct characters without most of the audience realising that she is but one actor, not two. Her snarling, offended Portuguese Queen Catherine is a whirling dervish of foreign invective, setting up perfectly her heartfelt admonition of Charles for the pain he has wrought upon her. Woodward’s other character, Old Ma Gwynn, is a kind of fetid, rat cunning, streetwise, gin soaked, Alfred Dolittle-esque brothel Madam. Her toothless grin belies her strength of character and Woodward makes the very most of her rampage through Nell’s palace apartment.

Sasha Waddell is marvellous as two quite different mistresses of Charles. Her Lady Castlemaine is vile, with evil Princess Leia meets Madonna red hair and wide, rapacious eyes. She is a marvel of condescension and superiority. By contrast, her French Louise de Kéroualle is a stranger in a strange world, slightly lost but sure of her aristocratic supremacy over Nell. One of the production’s most glorious moments occurs when Nell takes an opportunity to embarrass de Kéroualle with a hat – uproarious. But without Waddell’s groundwork, the joke would not have worked nearly so well.

Every play has one of those parts which could be either something or nothing; a part that is necessary but might not be memorable. In Swale’s play, that part is Nancy, dresser and unwilling actor in the King’s Company. Michelle Dotrice ensures Nancy is really something – something wonderful. Agile in face and body, gifted at old fashioned vaudeville routines, well able to smash a curt one-liner or a sly putdown with innocence or unashamed determination, Dotrice is an unexpected and unqualified treat. She starts shly but finishes with the sparkle of an Elizabeth Taylor diamond – every step, every phrase, impeccably judged.

But, rather like a vintage wine tasting, although every cup here overfloweth with an abundance of lustrous riches, there is one that suits all palates, covers all sensations, is richer, denser, more packed with vitality than all the others: Gemma Arterton’s flawless, seductive and ravishing Nell Gwynn. From her first tart cat-call, orange basket in tow, through her acting “lessons”, her burgeoning stardom, her romance with Charles and her waltzes with tragedy, Arterton is breath-taking in every way.

Transcendently beautiful, graceful but endearingly honest, her Nell is pure perfection. The moment when she freezes, on stage for the first time, unable to recall her cue – as brutal and raw a moment as any you will find asked of Ophelia; her gleeful repartee with just about everyone, royalty (theatrical and state) and commoner; her whole-hearted engagement with song and dance; the slow but subtly sure transformation from street dweller to Court unofficial, her accent morphing along with her bearing; the reliance upon and deep friendship with Nancy; her love for her sister and her shame about her mother; her complicated feelings for the men in the King’s Company, especially Hart; her magnificence following Charles’ untimely death. Any of those aspects of Nell might define the character. Arterton encompasses them all, effortlessly making Nell a Cindereliza character of pure genius.

Arterton makes you laugh, gently, dirtily, out loud; equally, her performance is intensely touching and, in several scenes, tears are unavoidable. This is a character of Shakespearean complexity and Arterton conquers all of its challenges and avoids all of its pitfalls. Not once does she play for sympathy; rather, by highlighting Nell’s ordinariness, toughness, flaws and dreams, Arterton makes her unavoidably adorable. Her performance as Nell is exceptional in every way.

Luscombe’s production of Swale’s Nell Gwynn is sheer delight. Funnier than almost anything short ofNoises Off, it is poignant and thought provoking too. The strong feminist subtext is beautifully served here, and rightly so. Women make theatre better, as writers, actors and other creatives. Nell Gwynnmakes that point carefully and clearly, but without trumpets.

Arterton is a true star. The play is a palpable hit. The company are first rate. Everything here radiates skill, glee and hope.

If you have any interest in the theatre, go see Nell Gwynn. If you have ever wondered what the fuss is about live theatre, go see Nell Gwynn. If you think you don’t like live theatre, go see Nell Gwynn. If you think Nell Gwynn is beneath you or “not your cup of tea”, go see it anyway.

And faith you’ll be in a sweet kind of taking

Five stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.