Friday, 9 October 2015

Nell Gwynn, Shakespeare's Globe, review: 'ribald, buzzy and thoroughly cheering'


Nell Gwynn

The 17th-century actress Nell Gwynn certainly trumps our own Kate Middleton in the social-mobility stakes. From her grubby origins as an impoverished orange-seller in the alleyways of Cheapside, she rose to become the mistress of Charles II while also achieving fame as one of the first – and most celebrated – actresses to grace the stage. It’s quite a story, and playwright Jessica Swale seizes on it with gusto in this effervescent new comedy which zigzags between the ego-fuelled rehearsal rooms of Drury Lane and the intrigue-soaked corridors of Charles II’s beleaguered court with boisterous panache.
Hollywood actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Nell with a mix of cat-like mischievousness and steely resolve, revelling in the role of a woman who uses her irreverent wit as well as her feminine charm to shake up an theatrical establishment struggling to get to grips with the radical notion of women playing women on stage. Yet with a rival theatre pulling in the crowds thanks to the bosomy charms of their new lead actress, our Nell resists the pressure to do the same, instead urging the playwright John Dryden (an amusing Graham Butler) to write “for a real woman” with “skin and heart and some sense in her head” rather than churning out another “predictable” romance. Swale has an awful lot of fun riffing on the gender politics of Restoration England, and although Nell comes across as a bit of a proto-feminist cipher as a result, one of the joys of this play lies in its easy postmodern wit and lightness of touch.

Cat-like mischievousness: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Nell) with David Sturzaker (as Charles II) in the Globe's 'Nell Gywnn'
Cat-like mischievousness: Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as Nell) with David Sturzaker (as Charles II) in the Globe's 'Nell Gywnn' CREDIT: ALASTAIR MUIR
Christopher Luscombe’s ribald, buzzy production is perfectly at home at the Globe – in fact, Swale’s play is one of the few new works to premiere there to display an instinctive understanding of the Globe’s singular space. The comedy is note-perfect – take Greg Haiste’s neurotic, preening actor Edward Kynaston, whose linen bust is put out of joint when Nell turns up sporting the real thing; or Amanda Lawrence’s scene-stealing Nancy, Nell’s dresser, whose utter ineptitude when dragged into the rehearsal room to play a maid is one of the highlights of the evening.
Without over-egging it, Luscombe’s cast play to the gallery with plenty of modern-day jibes at austerity politics and the dearth of female playwrights, and even a dig at our very own Duke of Cambridge. Great fun, and a thoroughly cheering end to the Globe’s outgoing artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s final summer season.
Until Oct 17. Tickets: 020 7401 9919;

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