Under departing artistic director Dominic Dromgoole, who once ran the important new writing theatre the Bush, Shakespeare's Globe has also pursued a policy of staging new work, and it has paid off handsomely alongside the work of its house playwright it is named for. It now follows the transfer of Farinelli and the King from the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse with another extremely deserved transfer indoors for Nell Gwynn from last summer's outdoor season. Many of us missed it there: hardly surprising, given that it was given just 11 performances, so it was here and gone before we blinked.
The immediacy of the theatrical moment is summonsed up by Nell Gwynn — an orange-seller turned actress and mistress to King Charles II — who tells her royal lover of the uniqueness of live theatre, "London could be burning down or the Thames could rise. But just for that moment, we're all there, us and the crowd and it's all that exists. And it fills us. And then it's gone. And it can never be again. And then — it's someone else's moment."
Actually, as this transfer proves, it is only partly true. The play is here again — but it is also someone else's moment, too. At the Globe, the title role was played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw; now Gemma Arterton, another fast-rising movie actress — who began her stage career at the Globe — has taken over. And she seizes it with both striking beauty and impish charm and humour; she has a blossoming swagger, an instinctive gift for the stage, just like the character she is impersonating so vividly.
This is a play of and about the theatre, and a love affair that plays out in it both between the actress and the King and the stage and the audience. Jessica Swale has written a glorious celebration of theatrical life, and Christopher Luscombe's wonderfully inhabited and uninhibited production completely honours it. For two and a half hours, there's absolutely nowhere else I'd rather have been.
Like the recent Mr Foote's Other Leg — another play about a slice of theatrical history, in that case set in the West End's Theatre Royal Haymarket where it also played — it's very much more than a wallow in theatrical artifice, though some of the best humour comes from petulant actors trying to have their moment (and being trying). There's also a tug of real heart in its portrait of a royal romance and the perils of that office that means its occupier can't necessarily follow the dictates of his heart.
Christopher Luscombe's utterly joyous production is staged and played with such warmth that it envelopes the audience, with Arterton joined by a cast that also includes David Sturzaker as the King and Greg Hastie, Jay Taylor, Michele Dotrice, Michael Garner and Nicholas Shaw as actors, dresser, manager and playwright in the theatre company. It is currently one of the best nights out in the West End.
"I’ve seen plays, such as April de Angelis’s Playhouse Creatures, which tell one more about the gender politics of Restoration theatre. If this one is remembered it will largely be for Arterton, who offers the most generous, and broadest, of Gwynns."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"It’s impossible to adulate the whole cast, but mention must be made of Michelle Dotrice, pure comedy as Nell’s dresser, Sasha Waddell as a double-helping of rival mistresses, and Douglas Rintoul as the scheming Lord Arlington. Oh and little Milly, who almost steals the show as a cute spaniel called Oliver Cromwell. All in all, but finally down to the now A-list Arterton, this is a right royal treat. Go."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"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."
Holly Williams for The Independent
"There is frothy song and dance, including one number in which Nell makes fun of the gigantic hat of Charles’s pushy French mistress. The result falls between Restoration comedy, My Fair Lady, Carry On films and Blackadder."
Patrick Marmion for The Daily Mail
"Christopher Luscombe’s ebullient production, which is blessed with some ripe comic ditties from Nigel Hess, sweeps us up from the start in a blissful whirl of theatricals."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard