Shakespeare’s Globe, London – until 13 May 2017
It is immediately obvious why Nell Gwynn is an Olivier-award winning comedy and it’s down to one inspirational writer – Jessica Swale. An individual with a keen eye for context within the text, Swale’s first play Blue Stocking came to Shakespeare’s Globe and highlighted the power of the historical woman – the first female Cambridge graduates. Nell Gwynn champions women in equal measure, in this case one of the first and most famous actors as the eponymous character. It’s back at Shakespeare’s Globe, seemingly Swale’s second home, both as a playwright and director alike. This version, despite being at the end of a national tour, loses none of its comedy, buzz or feel-good factor – the cast give as good as they get, even when their voices start to take on that unique end-of-run rasp.
The title character herself has been portrayed by an equally powerful list of actors – first Evening Standard nominee Gugu Mbatha-Raw (losing out to Photograph 51’s Nicole Kidman); then Bond girl Gemma Arterton in the Olivier-winning run at the Apollo Theatre and now Olivier-award nominee and effortless scene-stealer Laura Pitt-Pulford. That’s quite a line-up, one worthy of the power of Gwynn herself. While Pitt-Pulford doesn’t get the chance in this role to showcase her exceptional singing talent, she holds the audience in the palm of her hand throughout the entire performance. Witty, plucky and full of gumption, she combines the working-class positivity of theatre’s Eliza Doolittle or Oliver’s Nancy with a tender sophistication and natural grace. Equally at home in the audience or on stage, Pitt-Pulford is naturally likeable and relatable to seated and standing alike – after all, Gwynn rose from rags to riches after catching the eye of King Charles II (a slippery and slimy performance by Ben Righton).
The true brilliance in Swale’s writing however is the level of layering inherent within each concept she explores. This is a show that plays with gender politics in all classes; whether it be an actress on stage, or a paramour to the most powerful man in the country, women are forced to used their wiles and charms to gain the upper hand. They do that in force here – Nancy (Mossie Smith) and Lady Castlemaine (Pandora Clifford) run rings around the men both in their characterisation and their performance. Each line is full to the brim of comedic impact, titillating innuendo and feminist power – even Edward Kynaston (Esh Alladi), the upstaged female lead of the company, revels in his delivery with the power of a diva as a support to the ladies that run the show from behind the scenes.
The men however are more than happy to lie down and be walked over – romantic fop Charles Hart (Sam Marks) is beautifully over-egged, the Romeo of the stage forced to step aside as Gwynn (Pitt-Pulford) leaves even the king powerless in her wake. Swale is not one-sided in her generosity; the men are given just as many puns and joke as the women. In this case, the majority are levelled at them and they are more than happy with their lot.
Set in such a historical location, Hugh Durrant’s design is well in keeping with the grandeur and heritage of Shakespeare’s Globe – it may have lost something in other touring venues by comparison. This juxtaposition of classical attire with a modern location would tie in well with Swale’s contemporary references however, with a pot-shot inadvertently taken at the plot of “Titanic” and an homage to Julie Walter’s gin-soaked portrayal of Dinnerladies’ Petula Gordino in Old Ma Gwynn (Joanne Howarth).
Nell Gwynn is an inspirational historical figure and as such deserves an equally inspirational production. In Shakespeare’s Globe, with Pitt-Pulford at the helm and Swale’s script in reserve, there is little risk of going wrong.