“The lady’s a wit”
As a director, Jessica Swale has proved herself one of the finest at reinvigorating Restoration comedies and as a writer, has demonstrated a clear interest in illuminating tales of historical women so it is only right that her latest play for the Globe combines these two worlds in a heady rush of delightfully comic theatre. Directed by Christopher Luscombe, Nell Gwynn brings to life an ultimate rags-to-riches tale of an East End orange-seller who became a long-time mistress to King Charles II, also finding the time to become the most famous actress of the era along the way, a vital and vibrant part of theatre history.
The Globe proves itself to be an ideal venue for a show about the theatre and from the moment Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s wonderfully self-possessed Gwynn first calls out from the audience in amongst the groundlings, we’re just as smitten with her as Jay Taylor’s Charles Hart, the leading man du jour who sweeps her under his wing from where she blossoms into the leading performer of their company, ruffling a fair few feathers along the way, especially once she attracts royal attention and discovers matters of heart are also now matters of geopolitics in one of the play’s most striking and amusing scenes.
She’s not just a funny writer though, Swale’s a clever writer too. So alongside gags about playwrights stealing their inspiration (from Shakespeare to Titanic…), there’s also wry digs at the lack of decent leading roles for women (‘twas ever thus) and pointed commentary about the importance of theatre in an enlightened society and our collective duty to support and protect it where necessary. She also weaves in tiny moments of real pathos – Charles’ memory of his father’s execution, Queen Catherine’s treatment in court, the entreaties of a sister left behind (gorgeous work from Anneika Rose).
But above all, it is just one of the funniest plays in London right now, and possibly of the year so far. Amanda Lawrence delivers the kind of scene-stealing delight as dresser (and reluctant sometime actor) Nancy that ought to be studied by all acting students as a masterclass in comic acting whether from the delivery of a single line or grand physical comedy – she is hilariously fantastic. David Sturzaker is as appealing as his spaniel (not a euphemism) as the mischievous monarch and Greg Haiste’s bristling Edward Kynaston is huge fun as the actor who used to star in all the female roles.
And in a long-awaited return to the stage, Mbatha-Raw is a hugely engaging stage presence, wit and warmth wrapped in a performance of growing stature as Gwynn’s stock rises and rises. Swale’s customary musical interludes are present and correct, composed by Nigel Hess, and from dirty ditties to prototype boyband dance routines and a brilliant two-week montage song keeps the production feeling sparky throughout. Hugh Durrant’s design is a riot of colourful fabric and also produces the best giant hat you will see on a stage all year. Rip-roaringly, brilliantly good fun – a highlight of the year.